When Dan Savage created the It Gets Better project, I thought it was amazing. It was such a brilliant idea to reach out like this and let kids know that they aren’t alone. But lately I’ve run into a lot of people finding fault with the project and with Dan Savage in particular (such as those interviewed in this article), and I think it’s time to address some of the criticisms that have been going around.
In no particular order, these are some of the things I’ve been hearing:
- Dan Savage is a middle-income white guy who knows nothing about what minority (in terms of race) gay teens are going through.
- Dan Savage is hostile to the trans community.
- The It Gets Better project encourages teens to do nothing to improve their situation. Instead, it tells them to sit it out and wait for things to magically improve.
- The project allows adults to create a video and pat themselves on the back for doing something, when in fact they’ve done nothing to help bullied gay teens.
- The project does nothing to address broader issues of discrimination in the LGBT community.
Let me begin by saying that I am a middle-income white guy and I really don’t appreciate the implication that being middle-income and white makes me callous to minorities or incapable of doing anything to help them. I grew up poor and I am very aware of issues that affect low-income people in this country. I am certainly not familiar with what a latino boy in high school might be going through, so I don’t feel I can write a novel from that viewpoint or claim that I understand him. But that isn’t the same thing as saying I don’t care. And I am still capable of trying to help in any way that I can—I can do what I can to draw attention to the issues, and more importantly I can strive not to be a jerk to minorities.
As far as Dan Savage and the trans community is concerned, I think this article makes some very interesting points in his defense—primarily demonstrating that a lot of the “evidence” has been taken out of context. But frankly, this is at best an ad hominem attack—a classic logical fallacy, which posits that we should ignore something regardless of its own merits, because it was spoken (or created) by someone of dubious character. It’s the same reasoning that leads people to smear the characters of famous people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, as if that renders their accomplishments moot. The only relevant concern would be if It Gets Better itself was transphobic. I haven’t yet encountered anyone claiming that, and in fact many of the videos on the site are supportive of the trans community and made by trans people.
Ultimately, the project was created by Dan Savage (and not someone else) because he was angered over the bullying that lead to the suicides of Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas. That doesn’t automatically mean he’s the best choice, but he happened to have the idea. Dan Savage can be abrasive and he isn’t always politically correct. As he himself has said, “I’m a terrible messenger because I’m a potty mouth and a cusser, I’m an imperfect ambassador for this whole concept.”
But that doesn’t invalidate the project.
Before I go into the last three points, let me relate a little history—my own personal history, but through that a little history of gay culture in this country.
I was in high school from 1979 to 1983. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 3 (DSM-III) came out after I graduated and only then was homosexuality removed from the list of mental disorders that psychologists and psychiatrists were using to diagnose patients. After its release, President Reagan went on national news to express his disapproval and tell the country that as far as he was concerned, homosexuals were still mentally ill. Every novel I could find about gay men ended with the death of the main character, or at least it ended with him alone and miserable. (The one exception that I recall was Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s The Catch Trap.) The gay men’s group in my town (which I didn’t find until a year after I graduated high school) was advertised largely by word-of-mouth and met clandestinely each month at different people’s houses, flagged by balloons tied to the mailbox.
These were not happy times for the gay community.
I was so alone and miserable that I used to come home from school and rush to lock myself in my bedroom, because I cried so much. There were no Gay-Straight Alliances in my school. There were no quirky-but-lovable gay characters on television. I remember finding one book about finding your gay soul-mate which I devoured, but the author had this odd notion that gays were only half-souls, cut off from the full soul that straights had. A notion I found ludicrous then, and insulting today.
Luckily, I did eventually find people I could talk to. I met my first boyfriend through a local shopping center “newspaper” that accepted MSM (Male-Seeking-Male) personals, and fortunately he didn’t turn out to be a psychopath, but someone who was able to introduce me to the local gay community. (On the downside, though Michael helped me considerably, I was unable to help him. He committed suicide when we were in college.)
It was only after I’d been seeing Michael for a while that I found the courage to come out to my family. It seems strange, looking back, that I was so nervous about it, since they were very accepting, and I should have known they would be. But I wasn’t the first or the last gay teen to find that hurtle daunting, even knowing that it would probably work out all right.
Since I wasn’t out in high school, I wasn’t bullied for being gay, apart from one incident where my best friend and I had a fight and he told everybody I was gay (he suspected before I did). But even that was relatively minor compared to what many teens experience every day. My friend and I patched things up within a week and our friends basically forgot all about it. The problem for me, especially after moving away from my friends in New Mexico, was how isolated and lonely I felt, coupled with the image of gay men as diseased and doomed to a life of sleazy backroom hookups. Nowhere did I see anything that told me I could expect to meet someone and be part of a happy family. Even after I met Michael, the idea that we could ever marry and live together without hiding our relationship from the neighbors was inconceivable to me.
If something like It Gets Better had come along in the early 80s, when I was going through all of this, it would have been a godsend! To have thousands of people from around the country making videos for me to watch, telling me that there are millions of us in the country—around the world—and that there was nothing wrong with being gay, and that it was possible for me to look forward to what I in fact have now: a happy marriage, a house in the country, pets, not having to worry about my job firing me (for being gay anyway) or the neighbors beating me up… This would have blown my mind!
I find it truly baffling that people can fail to see how absolutely amazing it is that we now live in a world where the President of the United States has made an It Gets Better video and later issued a public statement supporting same-sex marriage; a world in which several sports teams and celebrities have used the It Gets Better platform to show their support of LGBT kids. As a teenager, I would not have considered this insignificant. I would have thought it was epic!
Is the project guilty of encouraging teens to accept their plight and do nothing to change it? What a bizarre concept. How does telling young people that they’re not diseased or evil, that they deserve to live full lives, and that a lot of people in the country support the LGBT community render them incapable of lifting themselves out of unpleasant circumstances? Is this some kind of social Darwinism theory, claiming we should just let them take their punches until they toughen up? Do the critics fear that we’re coddling them?
Regardless of the motivation behind the criticism, I simply don’t see what they’re getting at. As Dan Savage says, “There’s nothing about this project—nothing about participating in this project—that prevents people from doing more.” And there isn’t. I don’t see anyone telling kids to hide under a rock until it’s all over. They still have the option to do whatever they can to improve the situation. But now they know they aren’t alone.
Sadly, many of the teens who commit suicide are already doing their best to improve the situation. Often, they’ve reported the bullying to their parents and school administrators, in some cases their parents have backed them up against the school, and some of them have participated in The Trevor Project and It Gets Better themselves. Yet it still wasn’t enough to prevent them from taking their lives.
But the fact that something isn’t always enough doesn’t mean we should just throw it out until something better comes along. Every little bit helps. It’s simply untrue to say that it doesn’t. For some teens, all they need is hope to help them hang on through a rough time of their lives, and that is what this project does for them. I know it would have helped me immensely.
Does it encourage people to do too little? Are people making It Gets Better videos because they’re easy, and not doing more for the LGBT community? I find the implication that making an It Gets Better video somehow saps all of your motivation to do more flatly ridiculous. Some people would have likely done nothing to get involved, so for them making a video is at least more than they would have done previously. Even if it’s just to jump on the bandwagon and feel good about themselves, it may very well help someone. And for many, participating in something like this is a launching point for doing more later.
Lastly, the question of whether the It Gets Better project files to address issues of discrimination and intolerance within the LGBT community itself. Aside from the fact that it was never intended to address these issues, a quick search on the site turns up videos made by blacks (or African Americans, if you prefer), Latinos, Asians, trans people, bisexuals, etc. Pretty much anybody can make a video.
So really, for those who feel that It Gets Better leaves something to be desired, I just have this to say: Come up with something to take it further. Don’t look at what Dan Savage has accomplished and complain that it doesn’t go far enough. Take the next step.
Here are some sites that are trying to do just that. If you know of any, in addition to these, that are trying to take that next step, I’d love to hear about them!