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.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Post In The Machine

Recently, I opened up my email inbox to find a little surprise: a missive from a particularly toxic ex-boyfriend. "Hello," it said cheerily, and I said "Really?" out loud into my empty apartment. Of course, it turned out to be spam; in the age of multiple email accounts, sad old Hotmail has been abandoned in favour of its sleeker competitors like Gmail. It leaves these accounts to rot like fruit on the digital vine, and sometimes, a bug gets in.

It gave me a shock, though, to see that pop up. The years I've spent living in Toronto, I've always had at least ten housemates, and a lot of them just up and disappear at the end of the school year - they fly to Reykjavik or London or move back to Oakville - and their mail (90% of which is cell-phone bills that will never, ever get paid) piles up at the door. For years. And this little spamlet sort of reminded me of that. These abandoned nodes of human communication, filtered through technologies that don't pay attention to whether or not anyone is listening on the other end.

I've written before about reclaiming your music after a breakup - the need to weed out all "our" songs from your playlists, lest they cause a crying jag in line at Loblaws. And there are myriad blocking options on all our various websites: Facebook lets you shield yourself from folks, rendering yourself invisible to them, and most email servers will shunt unwanted messages right into your spam folder. If you so desire, you never have to see your former lovers, at least. I'm making no promises about running into them in Loblaws, you crying your eyes out as your iPod plays Prince.

I tried very hard, after my first big-deal breakup, to shield myself from my ex's presence. I avoided parties he attended, I took alternates routes that didn't take me past his house (which was tough, since we lived three blocks apart), and I sure as hell deleted him from my online accounts. MySpace, Facebook, and two or three email accounts all felt the wrath of my post-breakup purging. Toronto isn't a huge city, and we've since found each other in the same room a few times, assiduously avoiding eye contact. But on the internet, I didn't see him at all.

But it's sort like that pile of mail that keeps coming. Even though the intended recipient is long gone, the feelings are still floating around. They're not particularly useful, in the way that an unpaid Fido bill isn't useful, but they're still there. They clog up the systems (postal, internet-al [That's not a thing --Ed.] and emotional), and they make things just a little bit shittier.

And there are still feelings. Don't get me wrong: they're not capital-F Feelings, which implies romance and love and standing outside his window with a boombox hoisted over my head. They're more like small-f feelings: opinions + feelings, both formulated from experiences both good and bad, mashed together and leaving me with the preference for not seeing that ex-boyfriend over being friends. My thoughts about him now aren't lovely, like getting a postcard from a globe-trotting gal-pal who thought of you while she was in Ireland; they're more like Fido bills addressed to someone you once knew. Or like spam in your inbox. It's annoying, sure, but it's also a fact of life. Mail's still going to come, the feelings are still there. And blocking it out doesn't mean it's not still waiting in your spam folder, an unsettling reminder of love that has been returned to sender.