In Defense of “It Gets Better”

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!

The We Got Your Back Project

Sacred Village

You Can Play Project

“Freedom of Religion” and Same-Sex Marriage

Recently, as the result of the Chick-fil-A controversy, I’ve found myself involved in arguments I’d rather avoid.  But one particularly angry person tossed some arguments at me that I feel need to be addressed — not because he’ll ever read this blog, but because people who might read this blog will no doubt come up against these arguments in the future.  (They’re very popular.)

Now, I’m tolerant of differing points of view, but illogical arguments drive me crazy.  Illogical is illogical, regardless of the motivation behind it.

So let me address a few points.

First of all, we need to make something clear:  there is a big difference between being a “Christian country” and being a Christian-dominated country.  In the last poll I came across, something like 70% of the people in the USA identify as Christian, so clearly this is a country dominated by Christians.  Likewise, most of our Founding Fathers were Christian (though not all).  But that doesn’t make the United States a “Christian country.”  Some of the original colonies had very strict laws about attending church services and regulating “Christian behavior” on a number of levels.  But other colonies did not, and when the entire country was finally mashed together, those laws fell by the wayside (at least on a National level).

The US Constitution does not dictate that people must be Christian and in fact about 30% of the citizens in the country are not.  If we look at the Ten Commandments, as laid out in the Bible (both versions), the first, second, and third commandments are completely absent from our Constitution.  It isn’t illegal to worship other gods.  It isn’t illegal to worship idols.  And it isn’t illegal to completely forget the Sabbath.  If the country had been designed as a “Christian country,” then these would hardly have been left out.

Therefore, the United States of America is merely a Christian dominated country and not a “Christian country.”

When people haul out the Christian Bible as their reason for opposing same-sex marriage, they need to be reminded of this.  Their argument declares that God Himself defined “marriage” as being between one man and one woman.  (I won’t even go into why I think this is false, even within the context of the Bible.)  Therefore, we should accede to His divine will and forbid same-sex couples from marrying.

Closely tied to this is the belief that marriage has always been a religious institution and not a civil one.

If the only valid marriage in the USA is one sanctioned by the Christian God, then how is it possible that two people who don’t believe in that definition of God — say, Wiccans, or Scientologists, or atheists — are allowed to marry?  If marriage in this country is a religious institution, then why do we allow atheists to marry?  Why do we allow people to be married by a Justice of the Peace, rather than a pastor or priest?

The answer is simple:  marriage has never been a religious institution in this country.  It is a civil institution which all American citizens have a right to.  You have the right to marry, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist, or what-have-you.  Your religion does not determine your eligibility to marry in this country, because it isn’t relevant to civil marriage law.

It is true that clergy were granted dispensation to conduct marriages in the USA, probably dating all the way back to its founding.  But perhaps you’ve noticed that even a Christian couple needs to apply to the government (via the Town Hall where they live) in order to get permission for the church to marry them.  This is because marriage is a legal institution that determines legal relationships, for purposes such as inheritance, property ownership, insurance, Social Security benefits, etc.  Your pastor, or Rabbi or High Priestess is simply performing the ceremony as a proxy for the state.  He or she may also being doing it on behalf of your god or goddess, but the government isn’t concerned with that.  The government is merely concerned with your legal marital status for the purposes mentioned above (and taxes).

So when it comes right down to it, if somebody wants to insist that his religion disapproves of homosexuality (to put it mildly), then yes he certainly is within his rights to believe that and to say it.  But when somebody tries to tell me that laws should be passed which will force everybody in this country, including the 30% who aren’t following his religion, to obey the dictates of his Bible or his God…well, that’s another matter entirely.

If a Christian couple (male and female) went to a Jewish synagogue and demanded that the Rabbi marry them, the Rabbi would have  every right to say, “No.  You have to be Jewish, before I can marry you.”  But that’s entirely different from that Rabbi insisting that everybody in the entire country be Jewish, before they’d be allowed to get married.

Likewise, Christians should not be insisting that the law force everyone in the country to adhere to Christian mores, regardless of the fact that they are clearly in the majority.  What about those religions that have no issue with same-sex marriage?  They do exist.  My husband and I were married by a pagan priestess.  Other same-sex couples have been married by Unitarian churches or simply by Justices of the Peace.  (And now, of course, there are Christian churches performing same-sex marriages in some parts of the country.)

In other words, if a minority religion believes in same-sex marriage, Freedom of Religion is not served by making it illegal for any church or JP to perform same-sex marriages.  This is why the Constitution does forbid any one religion from dictating the law to rest of the country.  Being in the majority does not invalidate this.

Why Blocking Marriage Equality Isn’t About “Religious Freedom”

A recent article in the Kennebec Journal has same-sex marriage opponents up in arms, because the Secretary of State phrased the question simply and plainly:

“Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

They had wanted the more convoluted question that had appeared on petitions earlier in the year, which phrased the issue in terms of “religious freedom” and clergy being forced to perform same-sex marriages.

The problem is, this is blatant misdirection.  In none of the states that currently allow same-sex marriage is any clergy being forced to perform a marriage ceremony that violates their beliefs or the beliefs of their church.  And this isn’t going to happen, even if same-sex marriage becomes legal throughout the country.

Currently, no Catholic priest is forced to perform a marriage ceremony between two people who have previously married and divorced.  Not a one.  This is because it would violate his faith and the tenets of the Catholic church.  Similarly, a Jewish Rabbi isn’t forced to marry people who aren’t Jewish.  Religious freedom is already enshrined in our system of law and same-sex marriage poses no threat to it.

On the other hand, any religious group that demands same-sex marriage be illegal in a particular state is a very real threat to religious freedom.  No group or groups of religious people, even if they are in the majority, should have the right to impose their belief system onto people who don’t follow their faith.  There are other religious groups in Maine (and all over the country) — Wiccan, Unitarian, Episcopal, and others — who do consider same-sex marriage to be in concordance with their religious beliefs.

Yet their religious freedom is curtailed by the Christian groups who continue to oppose making it legal, on the basis that allowing it would somehow “violate” their religious freedom.  And in fact, it would not.

It’s a blatant lie.

This post is part of the YAM LGBT 2012 Blogathon.

The First Gay Marriage Proposal On A US Marine Base

This past Tuesday (April 24th), Navy veteran Cory Huston proposed to his partner, Marine Avarice Guerrero, in the first gay marriage proposal to ever take place on a US military base! Well, possibly others have occurred under more private circumstances, but this one had reporters photographing it.

After a few minutes of emotional holding and kissing, Huston went anxiously down on one knee; looked up at Guerrero, who was dressed from head to toe in military fatigues; and produced an engagement ring and the time-honored phrase, “Will you marry me?”

Huston’s mild tremble, a result of hours and days of anticipation about this day, was quickly quieted by the one word every hopeful fiancé wants to hear: “Yes.”

“I was blown away,” Guerrero said, staring at the shining ring on his finger shortly after the proposal. “I was shocked that after all we’d been through, he would honestly want to spend the rest of his life with someone like me.”