Thursday, November 04, 2010

It Gets Better: Why Saying this Matters

The recent spate of suicides by LGBT youth struck a deep chord with me, as it did with so many.  It stirred up memories of my own adolescence when suicide seemed like a reasonable 'solution' to being gay.  The sense of isolation, even for someone with as many privileges and good luck as I had, was easy to tap back into.  Maybe in my case it was mostly in my head (the actual incidents of violence were rare), but that didn't make it any less toxic.  Looking back I'm flabbergasted at how fully I had internalized the message I, like every other kid, was immersed in.  The thoughts in my head were evil; the attractions I felt were disgusting.  The urges had to be killed and if that weren't possible, maybe I needed to be.  Had I been brave enough to talk to my parents, I probably would have gotten help and support sooner (I repeat, I was luckier than most), but the idea of discussing this with them at the time seemed about as reasonable as growing a pair of wings.   

So I was heartened when Dan Savage and his husband Terry started the YouTube channel called It Gets BetterI thought it had some very clever things going for it.  One of the saddest things affecting LGBT youth is the fact that very often the adults in their lives believe that they are protecting their kids if they deny them access to information, resources, and positive adult role models.  They believe being LGBT is a choice, a bad one, and the best way to protect their kids from choosing it is to talk about our lives and us only in terms of disgust, fear and yes, hate.  That's if they talk about it at all.  Any attempt to present our lives to children in a positive manner will almost certainly garner the accusation of 'indoctrination' sooner or later.  Way too many people still believe that 'homosexual' is synonymous with 'pedophile', so naturally we can't be allowed direct contact with children.  Even if parents don't take the misinformation to this degree, many of them feel that challenging their opinions on this matter doesn't just challenge their politics or religion, it commits the worst crime of all: questioning their parenting.  

But this brings up one of the reasons I found Dan and Terry's plan so clever.  They're not contacting any kids.  They didn't get anywhere near any of them.  They simply left a message in a bottle to be found by any kid who might be interested, and encouraged the rest of us to leave our own messages.  They didn't say "your parents are wrong," though they did both mention that their families came around after initial disapproval. And while acknowledging how terrifying or overwhelming life can feel for LGBT kids, they made a point of stressing just how wonderful their adults lives have been. 

Okay, I knew there were would be some objections even from supportive folks and they came right on schedule.  Many of the earliest videos I saw suggested that all one had to do was get through high school, for example.  The implication seemed to be that high school was the only problem, college was in every kid's future, and that would inevitably involve an escape into a place of greater tolerance.  I do think things tend to improve for people once they reach majority; if you're an adult, you simply have more say in your life.  But not every kid is going to college.  Not every kid can escape her parents' grip the minute she turns 18.  Not every kid can afford to run away to the big city, especially when the job market is as bad as it is these days. 

But that revealed another hidden strength of this approach.  Anyone who felt the videos were misleading, or coming from a place of privilege could respond by making his or her own video.  For now anyway the Internet is not a zero-sum game.  If you feel like your story isn't being told, you can tell it yourself.  Sure Dan and Terry reserve the right to recommend certain videos, and that may shape which ones get more attention, but chances are good any reasonably computer-literate kid will be able to find videos that speak closely to her experience. 

Okay, there are still some privileges involved.  We're assuming (or hoping) that the intended audience will have unsupervised access to the Internet, or supportive adults who will allow or encourage access.  This is likely to exclude the group of LGBT kids most at risk.  Many studies find that self-identified LGBT kids account for 40% of all homeless kids.  Most studies of the general population figure LGBT folks make up somewhere between 5 and 10%.  Even if this seems low, or impossible to measure (the closet is an obvious challenge to accurate reporting), it still indicates a significant disproportion.  If you want to see some statistics regarding the experiences of LGBT kids, homeless or no, you can go here.  Yes, it's been compiled by PFLAG (of Phoenix), which most certainly has a viewpoint and an agenda (as do I), but their statistics are scrupulously footnoted, and include documents from such radical Queer organizations as the US Department of Health and Human Services.  This page also does a good job of explaining how many kids face things far worse than just 'teasing and name-calling,' as so many opponents want to claim. 

Recent brutal attacks on gay men in New York have reminded us locally that no community is truly safe, that bigotry and hatred don't disappear when one becomes an adult.  I know some people have been tempted to say this gives the lie to the It Gets Better project.  But the channel has a very specific agenda: ending the suicides of kids.  We need to address bigotry, hate and violence in all its forms.  We need to protect all potential victims.  But there's something so obscene about kids beating the bigots to the punch and doing the job themselves.  When we talk to kids, we always try to instill hope about their futures.  Women are still raped and killed, people of color and other minorities are still murdered as well.  They are still marginalized, brutalized, and in sundry ways relegated to second-class citizenship.  We don't want to sugarcoat or deny those facts, but when we talk to girls and children of color, we don't just warn them about the dangers of the world, we also encourage them.  Doing so isn't lying to them, it's part of the process of making their lives better, creating the world we want them to have.  Telling LGBT kids that it will get better is the same process.  It's valid. 

I still may make a video.  To be honest, I felt for a while like the middle-class, college-educated gay white guy contingent was pretty well represented, but then I remember that part of the point of things like this is numbers.  The more people challenging the hatred and isolation, the better.  Again, posting a video of my experience doesn't prevent anyone else with a different experience from doing it too.  And in a weird way, the privileges I had that made coming out easier for me may come with an obligation to speak up when others feel they can't.  It was out folks who paved the way for me, after all.   

In the meantime I'm making a donation to the Trevor Project, the suicide hotline most often mentioned in the videos.  Friend Kate mentions too that studies have revealed that arts programs in schools have a variety of beneficial effects including a lessening of bullying and violence.  I don't know the specifics of that, am still going to research it, but as an arts-loving homo I am thrilled to hear it.  It certainly fits with my experience.  Art class, orchestra class, creative writing and drama club all were huge havens for me in high school, places where I felt accepted, even celebrated. Kate encourages us all to write our congress members asking them to bring back or protect arts programs in schools.*  So that's another great step. 

*Kate posted this info on Facebook, so you won't necessarily find mention of it on the blog.  But you should follow the link anyway; she's a good read. 


Mark said...

Well written Patrick. Make that video!

Greg said...

I'll second both those sentiments, pal!