Feature photo by linhngan
“Having been unable to strengthen justice, we have justified strength.” –Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Just yesterday, for the first time, I watched a few videos on Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Youtube channel. While I genuinely applaud the effort, I was left puzzled over some of the messages in the videos. I was particularly struck by the irony of one of the videos from a bunch of Hollywood actors. Yeah, that’s right, Hollywood; where “it gets better” means you trade in your small town closet for a deluxe walk-in closet–complete with a publicist-hired beard if you really get big.
Listening to Dan and his BF discuss their past, one can easily see how close this issue is to them. And many of us can relate. As someone who came out as a teenager, I am more than sympathetic toward the plight of bullied queer youth. The recent string of suicides of queer youth is unacceptable. Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown and Raymond Chase are all youth who were different, bullied for it, and ended their own lives. Queer youth need to know there is life beyond high school. It can be hard for them to realize this–on a cognitive and on a developmental level–as they are just coming out of a self-centered childhood into young adulthood and learning about what it means to be a social animal. More should be done to let teens know that high school is just a short period in their lives. The It Gets Better project certainly helps kids hear that message.
What concerns me is the message that is left out. On one hand, Dan is correct, in his words: There is a place for us. One day you will find friends, you will find love and a community. On the other hand: I have successfully navigated through adolescence and concomitant high school/early college LGBTQ discrimination and have yet to stroll happily through the streets of Paris with my beau and adopted child, stopping to eat fresh croissants while watching the sunrise. Also, my parents are still a little funny about the queer thing. Maybe if I were crazy rich, they would be as accepting as Dan’s parents. So, good for you, Dan. You are uber-loaded and a huge success. But, all the bullied LGBTQ youth watching that video should know that such an outcome is more than likely not waiting for them. In fact, only a few lucky ones will ever reach that level of financial security–and a few even luckier ones will simply live beyond our means as if we really were jetsetting elite. Ahem. But, most queer teens grow into relatively normal queer adults. We lead relatively normal lives, working, paying rent, starting and/or maintaining families in the face of some of the most insidious bigotry that exists: hatred and discrimination against anything non-heteronormative.
(Additionally, while Dan Savage says he wishes he could go back and tell his 14-year-old self to listen to and thoroughly believe the lyrics to “There is a Place for Us” from A West Side Story, that production held a whole different lesson for me. My mother sat me down and watched that with me when it was time to explain the practice of brownface and blackface. The lesson began after I watched a few minutes on TV and asked, “Mommy, why do those people have dark make-up on, bright clothes and weird accents?” I digress…)
Despite some of the elements of Dan’s message that turn me off, he is still ultimately right. There is a place for us. The very important part he omits is that we need to create that place. And there is still a lot of work to be done there. It takes courage to lead your life on your terms. It takes strength to be different. It shouldn’t be so hard to be yourself, but it is. It is an unfortunate reality that we have to be strong in the face of injustice. But strength is only one part of the message. The other part: actively striving for justice.
We have to be strong–stronger than most–because injustice exists. Strength, alone, is not necessarily a virtue, though. We need to couple that with vigilance. In a perfect world, in a just world, we can be free to be ourselves. While LGBTQ youth must find courage and strength in themselves to overcome discrimination, the onus is on all of us, queer and not queer, to take LGBTQ bullying seriously. The “kids can be so cruel” and “boys will be boys” attitudes that prevail must end. Children need guidance. Catching them early is essential. Little bigots can grow into big bigots when left to their own devices. When you hear a kid at play use gay slurs as insults, challenge them about it. Make them question their word choice. Hell, question your own word choice while you are at it. Set an example that it is never okay to be a bigot. Bigotry may be a part of our shared cultural heritage but we all have the capacity to change elements of our beliefs and attitudes–and most certainly we have the capacity to change behaviors. If you witness bullying in any form, say something about it. If you are being bullied, help is out there. Go get it.
It does get better. And we must never cease working to make it so.
Organizations to check out for more on how to become involved or get help:
The Trevor Project: Resources and Suicide Hotline for Queer and Questioning Youth
Howard Brown Services and Programs at the Broadway Youth Center
The Illinois Safe School Alliance
We Give A Damn