Sunday, September 26, 2010

It Gets Better

Today I took a stand against gay youth suicide.
Sort of.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not in any way in favor of youth suicide, gay or otherwise.

I was inspired by the "It Gets Better" campaign, and when I heard that they were doing some shooting today within a few blocks of where I live, I decided to go over and lend a hand.
The most popular of the videos in this series presents Dan Savage and his partner Terry, with the aim of telling queer (or pre-queer) kids in high school that it may be rough now, but it gets better.

But I was also concerned about a couple of themes in this video that didn't sit well with me.

For one, I remember when people told me "don't worry, just wait. It gets better."
There is nothing more frustrating to a t(w)eenager than telling them to wait and sit on their hands. It makes it sound like everything it out of their control. All you have to do it wait - but waiting may be the one thing a young person cannot do well.
When people told me to wait and that "it gets better", I wrote them off as out of touch and out of options.

For another, I think it is potentially quite damaging to suggest that the best thing a queer (or pre-queer) kid can do is nothing, to sit back and wait for things to get better. What about coming out? What about taking a little bit of control over their lives? What about living authentically? I don't think that Savage and crew are suggesting that the best thing to do is nothing, but it's easy to read that message out of what they are saying.

Another thing that bugged me was the suggestion that the best thing you can do is tough it out, then leave everything behind and move to the big city. Well, the truth is, the big city sucks for a lot of people. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to living in San Francisco who moved here thinking that they would fall into the lap of a sweet landlady bearing magic brownies and get swept up into a fabulous and unstoppable social life, only to find that, just like everywhere else, you've got to build your social network from the ground up.
And when you don't have a solid grounding of who you are, the big city can chew you up and spit you out faster than you can say "doublemint".

OK, enough with the negativity!

So, I decided to go on over to the taping, and do my best to shift the message, a little bit. I wrote out a couple pages about what I wanted to say on my phone while walking over there, read & re-read it, and then shoved the phone in my pocket & spoke into the camera. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was something like this:

Hi, I'm Bill. And you are awesome.

It will get better. It will. But that's not much help to you now.

There's a couple things you can do to make it better now.

One is that you can write, and read, about everything. Reading about history, how people have overcome amazing obstacles in the past.

And you can make things better now. For yourself and others.

To make things better, be yourself. When you are you, authentically you, then it doesn't matter what other people think or say.

And one more thing. 'It gets better' doesn't mean you have to leave everything you know and love behind and go to the big city. To be honest, the big city can be a pretty lousy place for young people.

But all across this country, from Portland Oregon to Portland Maine, from Austin Texas to Helena Montana, there are great queer communities. And when you do something to make things better, you make your home town better, too.

Things have been changing so fast in this country, all over the country.

So, it will get better. You can make it better.

I don't know if they will use it, or how they will edit it, but if it makes the cut, I'll post the video here.

More theory...
My thesis was about gay youth suicide. Well, actually, it was and it wasn't.
I was frustrated by seeing people amplify the statistics about gay youth suicide up into the scariest monster possible. Their intent was good - they wanted to draw attention to the plight of queer youth in order to do something to prevent suicide.
But, then the question is what do you do? Most of the boys who are struggling the hardest are not open about their sexuality, many may be completely unaware that they have a sexual orientation at all. Some of them don't want to be gay and are trying to find another way to be in the world.
So reaching out to queer youth is good for all kinds of reasons - but preventing suicide may be the least of them.
What is likely to be a lot more effective is changing the culture we live in so that it produces less stress in the first place.
So that's why I did my thesis about measuring heteronormativity in the social environment, and specific ways to improve the social environment (like passing gay rights laws), rather than trying to identify the individual-level risk factors that affect queer and pre-queer youth.


  1. Amen to your response to the ads. I particularly have a problem with these ads which indirectly suggest (or at least that's how I see it) that gay/queer youth cannot feel great about themselves TODAY. No matter how small or isolated a community is, there's always someone a queer young person can talk to. Besides, while these young people are "waiting" for things to get better, some of them might leave for a big city so they can be themselves, but end up being homeless or engage in sex work because of further isolation and the high cost of living. So bravo on telling queer youth that they can make changes today for the better - right where they are.

  2. Hi Bill - I've been thinking a lot about your post and about what it means to be involved with it. I was reading Joe.My.God. just now and saw his rant on the following rant:

    It certainly raises questions about whether the campaign is really helping the entire queer community. While it may not, it's's more than what was there just a week ago... I do agree with you that empowering teenagers to deal with things now, where they're at, could be very helpful. For some though, finding the inner strength to stand up for themselves may not be feasible, and waiting to full celebrate their true authentic selves may not happen until they're able to find a more welcoming environment. Hopefully, it won't have to be that way in the future...

  3. I like your take -- because waiting is just unbearable for a lot of kids. Another message here is the "wait until you are done with high school" message. Well, that doesn't work either, sometimes. It's just too unbearable. Sometimes dropping out, getting your GED, and then going to college make a lot more sense than "toughing it out" because sometimes toughting it out in such a negative environment as high school will get you killed. There are other ways to get your education besides staying in high school.