Thursday, September 30, 2010

It Gets Better, But Is That The Answer?

Last weekend, I helped chaperone a homecoming dance for GLBT youth here in Orlando. It was an interesting experience for multiple reasons. First of all, it made me feel old. High school kids look so young. Secondly, it was so foreign from my own growing up. In high school, I attended a good portion of the dances, but always felt a little out of place and of course, always had a girl as my date. The kids on Saturday were coming together in acceptance and seemed to generally enjoy each other. I'm not sure exactly how many kids came, but it was a fair number. Some of the boys wore skirts and make-up and some of the girls were in boyish clothes. There was one couple that stood out to me, because they were two young boys (probably 15) and I couldn't help but feel like they were a representation of everything I missed growing up. They were holding hands and were clearly into each other. It was wonderful to witness, but also saddening because of all the people who never had the chance for young teenage love or those teens who still don't.

This past week, the news has been full of stories of young boys killing themselves because of antigay bullying. This isn't a new problem, but one that has gotten a lot of attention as the new school year has begun. My heart goes out to those boys and their families, because part of me can understand what happened. As I've written before, I didn't come out until I was 20 and well into my sophomore year of college. I was lucky in some ways. In high school, I managed to mostly fly under the radar of bullies, though I had my fair share of name calling and comments about my voice, which is probably why the phone ringing stills sends me into a panic. In college, I had "fag" written on my dorm room door, but nothing completely horrific ever happened, yet I was still in a very dark place when I came out in the winter of my sophomore year. Luckily, I went to get help and met with a therapist. If I hadn't, I don't know what would have happened or where I would be right now, so I understand these boys on some level and I know it isn't easy.

In response to these recent suicides, the writer Dan Savage started a video campaign called "It Gets Better." He is encouraging gay people to make videos of themselves telling the GLBT youth that it does get better. I have nothing against Dan Savage and I think the idea here is coming from the right place, but as I watched his video, I couldn't help but think is this really the best we can do? I've been a teacher for over five years and I can tell you from my experience, teaching 18-year-olds, simply telling them about the future and that things will be important later or things get better have little to no effect. Young people are in the moment and while that moment may not be so important in the long run, it feels vital at the time. A gay boy, sitting in a high school getting beat-up everyday and getting called fag, doesn't want to hear that it gets better and that he just needs to pull through, and I don't believe that should be our response as the GLBT community.

I'm not saying it isn't important to let kids know that gay people can be happy and can have amazing lives, or that there are places out there that have strong gay communities. Those are wonderful messages, but not necessarily a solution.

I began this post with the story of the homecoming dance for a reason. Here in Orlando, we have an organization called Orlando Youth Alliance (OYA) that is made to help these youth who don't fit in and need support while they are going through the difficulties that life has to offer young GLBT kids. OYA put on the dance and for that one night those kids could come together and have fun and be themselves. OYA meets weekly and provides a place to just talk. Does that fix everything? No, but it's better than just saying we can't help you and remember it gets better. More cities need these organizations and schools across this country need to take a stance to stop bullying of any kind. Schools need to discuss these issue with kids, parents, and teachers or it will never get better.

I also want to throw one more kink into this response, what if it doesn't get better? Yes, Dan Savage is doing quite well, but not everyone else is. We still live in a country that hates gay people. You still have to listen to constant discussion over if you should have the right to do, basically, anything. You can be fired for being gay. You still can't serve openly in the armed forces. You can't get married. You can't donate blood. Yes, you can move to a more accepting city. You can find friends and lovers, but it is still hard. I live in a fairly gay-friendly city for the first time in my life, yet not that long ago I was called a fag by some 14-year-old boy as I exited the mall. I couldn't find a job here for six months and went on a few interviews where I was told I couldn't be out if I wanted to work there. High school isn't completely the end of the fight or the bullying. Yes, you get stronger, but you are still always treated as a second class citizen in this country.

I'm not meaning to be so negative, or to even fully attack this campaign, but I don't think it's the best solution we have to offer as a community. Maybe it is part of an answer, but mostly it's a nice way for people to feel like they've done something in the face of such tragedy.

-Stephen (Better?)


  1. While it's not enough to just tell high schoolers "it gets better," I think it is important to have so many real queer voices out there and as someone who used to teach high school, I know how important it can be for young people to have hope. I am still in touch with some of my former hs students, many of whom have come out, and they tell me how much it helped them to have me tell them not to give up, not to kill themselves because it gets better after hs.

    You make a valid point, but there's a huge difference between a disaffected 18-year-old college kid and a 14-year-old. One of the reasons I love and miss teaching HS is that I think you have much higher probability of actually helping and affecting their lives for the better.

  2. V-

    I think your perspective is important and you are right in many ways. I'm just saying that I'm not sure videos of famous gays or even non-famous gays who are strangers will have much impact. One on one or face to face does, which is why I am in favor of organizations like OYA, which is for 13 to 24-year-olds and run by mostly openly gay adults. I'm sure you made a huge impact on your students by just listening to them and telling them to hold on and not give up.

  3. I definitely understand your point of view about the Dan Savage project. Teens do often have a head in the sand mentality. However, I can't help but feel like it's a start. If one kid sees it and tries to seek some help or something, then it's been worthwhile in my mind. I think OYA and organizations like it are also doing the community a tremendous service.

  4. The message I would send instead is "Hey, if you're gay, you're the best already!"

  5. I'm going to agree with just about everyone (including you) in saying that this is not an answer, but it's certainly an important message. I think the ultimate goal needs to be tolerance education in schools and face to face interactions (I don't think Dan Savage would argue against that), but even hearing that your life can be different and may be different one day is empowering. I came out to my best friend because of an aol chatroom conversation that forced me to be honest with myself. I'd just challenge the idea that this is simply a way for people "to feel like they've done something in the face of such tragedy." Especially when it comes from someone like Savage, who is very active in the movement.