Last weekend I spent several hours experiencing a nonfiction project that absolutely blew me away. The project is called “It Gets Better” and it was started by columnist Dan Savage in reaction to the heartbreaking rash of recent suicides by gay teens. In a column on September 23, Savage wrote about his reaction to the death of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, who hanged himself after enduring intense bullying at school. “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes,” wrote Savage. “I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
Instead, Savage and his husband posted a video titled “It Gets Better” on YouTube and invited others to do the same. The response has been overwhelming. Within 10 days there were hundreds of videos from adults of all ages and ethnicities in the U.S. and abroad. Posters included recognizable gay and gay-friendly bloggers, actors, and musicians. But most contributors were “ordinary” men and women who wanted to bear witness to the experience of growing up gay or lesbian in a world where adolescence is an emotional whirlwind and any perceived weakness can leave a person vulnerable to attack.
One poster said he was beaten so violently in high school that he’s been confined to a wheelchair since. But even those who escaped long-term physical harm bear emotional scars from verbal abuse and fears that they were letting down their parents or committing sins against their god. Taken together, the videos paint a vivid picture of what life was like for many gay and lesbian teens in recent decades, a picture that it would be difficult for one filmmaker or one author to put together alone. The fact that so many people seized the opportunity to tell their stories and reassure young people that “it gets better” is a poignant example of a community finding its voice.
Before the Internet redefined community in this way, it was every man and women for him/herself.” When I was questioning my own sexuality in the 1970s, there were just a handful of books available and hardly any depictions of healthy lesbian relationships on film or TV. The first positive portrayal I remember seeing was “The War Widow,” a 1976 PBS teleplay set during World War I, in which the lonely wife of a soldier falls for a bohemian photographer. Though the most risqué physical contact between the two women took place when one put her hand gingerly on the other’s shoulder, their candid talk of romantic feelings was a revelation.
It was around that time that People magazine ran an article on British tennis champion Virginia Wade, referring to her “constant companion,” a woman. I’d always loved watching Wade on the court; she had the first really powerful serve in women’s tennis. Now her success—she won Wimbledon in 1977, as well as two other Grand Slam singles titles—reassured me that even though I was different, I could aspire to anything I wanted. It also fueled my interest in women’s sports as a focus for my research and writing. Female athletes inspired me in general, but I sensed that this was an area where I might learn about others like me.
Things are so different in 2010. LGBT issues now are front-page news and many gays and lesbians are out and proud. But that doesn’t necessarily mean growing up gay is easier than it was in the ‘70s. When I was a kid, the hate speech was whispered because people just didn't speak about homosexuality. Today it's shouted in glaring headlines and viral videos that demonize gays and lesbians who want to get married or serve in the military. Kids are impressionable. When they hear their parents rail against gay soldiers, it's not that hard to guess which scapegoats they'll target for their own frustrations.
Hopefully, the compassionate reaction to the recent tragedies will give hope to kids who are being bullied. The very presence of the "It Gets Better" videos is a sign that there is a community waiting to welcome them when they get through school. In the meantime, some folks who were inspired by Dan Savage’s project started the Make It Better Project with the aim of giving students the tools they need to make their schools better now. One of their first actions is to rally people across the country to contact their Congresspeople this Tuesday, October 12, and urge them to vote for the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act to end bullying.