Friday, October 8, 2010

It Gets Better

Dan Savage, you are my hero. Not only are you the purveyor of fine, no-nonsense sex and relationship advice, with your new It Gets Better project, you've stepped into the role of social leader and engenderer of change. Sir, I salute you.

For those of you not blessed with a free NOW magazine, Dan Savage has highlighted the recent rash of teen suicides brought on by bullying. The teens in question were either gay or being perceived as gay and subsequently harassed, leaving them feeling like they had no choice except ending their own lives to escape the pressures and torments. Which is sad, because, as Savage says, it gets better.

Never having been a queer teen, I can't speak to the horrors of high school for a nascent homo. I can only imagine that coming out when you're what, twelve? Thirteen? Sixteen? Later? Younger? It can't be easy. We straight kids get to slip under the radar, but the gay kids have to stand up and say, "You know what? Not only am I interested in sex and relationships at what seems like a preposterously young age (although, like, come on: kids think about sex), but I'm going to do them in ways that huge chunks of the population actively decry." That can't be easy. Staying closeted seems to come with a whole other set of problems, including the lying and self-loathing, and it's often a precursor to fleeing town the day after graduation.

Being a teenager isn't easy, no matter whose junk you want to touch. It's a time when kids separate from their parents, and becoming unstuck from your family takes a huge amount of psychic work. Some kids are good at, bidding their parents adieu in a painless way that involves, I don't know, turtleneck sweaters and hugging. Many, many of us are not quite so lovely. I was angry and ill-mannered at eighteen, all eating disorder and rage. Many of my friends can attest to the same huge, unfocused anger: drug use was heavy, sexual misconduct was everywhere, there was self-mutilation, and kids who left home and who got kicked out. It wasn't idyllic small town. Being eighteen is like getting a post-doc in fury for some people, and I was summa cum laude.

Most of us got our acts together, either by growing out of it and finding alternate, healthier ways of dealing with ourselves and our families, or by getting the help we needed (hello, CAMH, my old friend). Some of us were left to flounder, slowing sinking into darker waters as our drug choices became addictions and our relationships became strange. And for teens who are hiding huge parts of who they are, or made to feel ashamed or afraid of who they are, I can only imagine that the waters are that much darker.

Which is why Savage's project is so important. He's asked gay adults to create YouTube videos and post them on his channel, talking about how they had a rough go of it in their teen years, and how much better it got once they left the close-minded fear of high school or the side-long glances of their unwelcoming hometown. They talk about how they, too, once wanted to end their lives, because of the homophobia of their peers or the so-called adults around them. And how glad they are that they didn't, because suicide would have robbed them of their lovers, their husbands and wives, their children, their travels, the family members who grew to accept them, their chosen families and the friends who rely on them and love them. And it would have robbed them of the chance to escape their unhappy teenage years and become the people they were trying to be all along.

Savage can be irreverent about a lot of things - Google "santorum" (or, for you weak of stomach, don't) - but he's been candid in the past about how coming out was hard for him, and his family. His husband went through the same horrible process, and their touching video highlights how glad they are that that part of their lives is over. In the early 80s, there weren't the same resources that are available now, but gay and lesbian teens and young adults still face higher suicide rates than the rest of their peers. Knowing there's a whole community of Dan Savages out there, rooting for you to make it through your ridiculous, awful, high school years, might make a difference. Seeing that it gets better, even if it's not good now, might save a life.


  1. There have been many critical responses to this campaign. While I'm not sure how I personally stand on the issues, some of the criticisms are serious and can't be ignored on the basis of "well, at least he's doing something". One thing studying history shows clearly is that doing something inadequately thought out is sometimes worse than doing nothing, because our actions can always have effects we don't intend. In fact, one might say doing something is always worse than doing nothing - but it's also potentially better. What we hope for is that the better outweighs the worse. Anyway - here are some people who've put up critical responses to Savage's campaign:

  2. Those critical responses have some interesting things to say, and I myself have a few reservations about the tone of Savage's project - namely, that the ultimately goal for folks is going to be marriage and kids, which can be, for a thirteen-year-old, as incomprehensible as going to space.

    I think it's funny that the blogosphere has taken issue with Dan and Terry's video and their discussion of leaving their small-towns, like there's some sort of Big Scary Gay Agenda to vilify, well, villages. Many of the IGBP contributors do have a small-town background, and the sense of relief they felt upon leaving them is often palpable in the YouTube clips.

    I realize that this project isn't the answer to the problem of harassment, depression, bigotry and suicide for gay and bi middle- and high schoolers, and that there are other resources for gay and questioning teens, some of which I linked to in the main entry. But I do think that it helps by calling attention to the issue of homophobia-driven suicides, and by reminding those who might be considering it that their lives are likely to improve once they have the agency and freedoms that comes with not being under their parent's roofs, with their homophobic peers, embedded in a culture, either rural or urban, that is clearly not accepting of their sexuality and lifestyle.