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Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project: a counter-response

October 3, 2010

It is with great interest that I’ve spent much of my weekend reading the various responses within the LGBTQ community to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better video project. The It Gets Better project, for those who don’t know, began with a video that Savage and his husband made as a response to the death of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, who committed suicide after being ridiculed by his peers at school for his sexuality.

Savage’s video has inspired a slew of similarly-themed responses from the celebrity world, both from within and from outside of the gay community. In my smaller circle of queer friends and neighbors, most of the response I’ve seen seems to be angry, and the anger seems to be directed at Dan Savage. One blog response has been spreading like wildfire via Facebook and Twitter, and various friends and friends-of-friends are writing Facebook notes to summarize their feelings about it (I won’t link to those because it feels like an invasion of privacy, although I realize that the notes may have been left unlocked so that they could be read by the general public). While I generally have a myriad of criticisms of the direction that the gay and lesbian movement seems to be headed towards (i.e fighting for “marriage equality” rather than fair housing and an all-inclusive version of ENDA), I find myself a bit befuddled by all this anti-It Gets Better sentiment that I’m reading this weekend.

One criticism I’ve seen says that by telling teens who feel trapped in their small towns/rural environments and/or their religious upbringings, Dan Savage is perpetuating a stereotype that people who are rural and/or religious are more bigoted than people who live in urban settings and are not particularly religious. As someone who was raised in a rural, fundamentalist environment in the Deep South and still speaks with a Southern accent, I understand the stereotypes and societal limitations that are placed upon rural, religious folk as much as the next person. If I tell someone I’ve just met where I’m from and they respond by asking me if I wore shoes as a child or if I learned how to read later in life, it offends the hell out of me. It is a response that happens more often than you might think, and it’s pretty clearly ignorant and bigoted in a multitude of ways. That said, when someone asks me if it was difficult to grow up as a queer kid or as someone who generally felt “different” in a Mississippi community with a population of around 100, my response is that yes, it was incredibly difficult, at times intolerable. While I certainly don’t believe that every rural, small-town and/or religious person is an anti-gay bigot, I do believe- no, I know- that it is a mistake to discount the voices of queer kids who feel trapped by the constraints of rural or religious life.

Of course there’s no universal experience surrounding growing up queer in the South and/or in a rural community and/or in a religious environment. Similarly, there’s no universal experience for people of color, for immigrants, for disabled kids, for atheist kids, for kids who listen to punk rock, for kids who are artists, for progressive kids, for kids who want to choose a different career path than what their parents choose for them, or for any other kid who doesn’t fit into the very narrow definition of what constitutes normality in many rural and/or religious communities. Living in a constraining community can be dehumanizing for anyone who differs from what the rural notion of “the norm” often tends to be. For a queer kid, this is especially difficult if you’re dragged to church every week only to hear a sermon about how you’re going to hell, and if you live 100 miles away from the nearest bookstore or record store or LGBT community center. If you live in a community so isolated and homogeneous that you’ve never met anyone like you, imagine how terrifying of an experience that must be. Now, imagine that two nice, friendly, intelligent gay men who love each other are using Youtube to let you know that there is a world outside of the one that you know, and that once you’re finally old enough, you can run towards something instead of away from it. Is it so wrong for a kid to find a glimmer of hope in that message?

The notion that the concept of speaking to oppressed rural kids and reassuring them that it can, in fact, get better is something that oppresses rural, religious people as a whole: that is a notion that invalidates untold numbers of teenage experiences. Damien Echols is a small town Arkansan who is sitting on death row because he was a teenager who liked Metallica and was interested in Wicca. Constance McMillen was shunned, harassed and shamed by her small-town peers just because she wanted to wear a tuxedo to her prom. Personally, I wish that I’d had a Dan Savage to tell me half of my lifetime ago that my surroundings weren’t my entirety, that it was okay that I had pink hair and that listening to Bad Religion didn’t make me a devil worshipper and that being pro-choice didn’t mean that I wanted to murder babies and that it was perfectly fine for me to think that boyish girls were way more attractive than the farmhands and aspiring baseball players that I was expected to date. If a kid turns eighteen and feels the need to Get The Fuck Out, we should be encouraging them to follow their instincts, rather than making them feel guilty about abandoning some aspect of their identity, whether that’s intentional or not. Let them negotiate that for themselves, fellow adults. It’ll come.

Another criticism of the It Gets Better Project is that it’s not proactive enough, that each year spent as a miserably oppressed gay teenager feels like a lifetime, and that it certainly won’t keep any kid from killing themselves. My response is that in my experience working with children of various ages, different kids respond to different types of encouragement. What keeps hope alive in one child might not work for the next. I imagine that as a queer adult, Dan Savage created the It Gets Better video by thinking about what would have made him feel better as a teenager. I don’t see Dan Savage going around and proclaiming that his video is the magical cure for gay teenage oppression; I have a feeling that he realizes his project is a drop in a huge bucket. It raises visibility about the broader issue of anti-gay bullying, and it is something to brighten a kid’s day. That may not be the greatest solution of all, but it’s something. There’s no one solution that is going to keep kids from killing themselves; we should be providing a multitude of them.

Another problem with this “it’s not enough, it doesn’t give concrete solutions” criticism is that it ignores one of the few truly magical experiences of teenagerdom, and that is the ability to dream big, so to speak. Not every solution to the problems that bullied teenagers face is something that is concrete. Indeed, tangible solutions must exist; these are without a doubt the most important part of the solution. But what, pray tell, is wrong with encouraging kids to imagine a better future for themselves, one that they may not have thought possible before? Rather than merely giving them something in the distant future to hold onto, It Gets Better can give kids something to help them get through the torment they experience everyday: hope.

I know, hope is a concept that we, as adults, can’t necessarily do anything constructive with (some might say the Obama campaign is a great example of that). But then, since when are we in any place to say what should and shouldn’t, or what does and doesn’t, work for kids? Kids don’t necessarily want to hear our strategies for them, which is a normal part of a teenager’s developmental process. We need to support them in their struggle for their own agency, and part of that solution is giving them many different types of support. I’ve heard lots of feedback from angry adults about the It Gets Better project. But what about the kids? On the whole, are queer teenagers angry about this video? Instead of writing manifestos about how terrible this project is, why not use our blogs as a vehicle to give teens a chance to respond to the video in whatever way they feel works best? Let the kids hash this one out. They’re the ones with something at stake here, not us.

If I had stayed in my rural, religious community, I don’t know that I would have made it with my identity intact. What saved my life (honestly, I’m not even sure if that’s literal or figurative) was getting the hell out of it. I was lucky in that I spent most of my time as a child in the nearest city to me, so I had an inkling that there was a better world out there, even if what I saw every day wasn’t quite what I wanted or needed. That said, I can’t extricate my queer identity from any other aspect of my sense of self. I have gloriously complicated feelings about Mississippi, and I like that just the way it is. I would never discount how difficult it was to grow up with fundamentalist Christianity being shoved down my throat from many angles, and I will never forget how wonderful it felt to run for what felt like miles and miles with only easily climbed barbed wire fences in my way. Whenever I meet other Mississippi ex-pats (or folks from Alabama, or folks from Georgia, or folks from Tennessee, and so on), regardless of our sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, a shared experience seems to be this: it is possible to have a genuine love for a place that may not entirely love you back. As I’m writing this, I know that there are multitudes of rural, religiously indoctrinated kids who feel that pull and tug. I have faith that they are more than capable of working it out for themselves.

There  is no universal experience for growing up queer. As evidenced by much of the response to the It Gets Better project, there’s a pretty vast spectrum of differences. Part of embracing those differences means offering a wide variety of sources of confidence, support and comfort to the kids who are struggling. But please, let’s not discount the fact that what repulses one kid may validate the experiences of another. As far as I can tell, the It Gets Better project means something to some queer kids out there. That, my friends, is worth a great deal.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 8:15 PM

    Thanks for this.

    I also really like the project, despite having taken issue with a number of things Dan Savage has said or written in the past.

    I agree with and/or am sympathetic to a lot of the critiques I’ve seen and heard, but a lot of it just makes me feel really…tired. Of course this project isn’t going to fix everything, of course we need to work to make it better for queer (and all alienated) kids RIGHT NOW. For all my own criticisms of Savage, I don’t see him implying otherwise with this.

    Mostly I remember being a depressed middle and high schooler and wanting to kill myself, feeling like I SHOULD kill myself. And the main reason I didn’t was because I had this big faith that once I was done with high school, it would GET BETTER. In some ways it did and in some ways it didn’t (I was still the same depressed, anxious mess in NYC that I’d been in my claustrophobic college town,) but I wouldn’t trade that hope I nurtured throughout my adolescence for anything, I don’t know if I’d be here without it. I cherished whatever crumbs of pop culture or literature I found that told me that it made sense to be miserable right now, but someday I’d GET OUT and things would be different. I wish I’d had something like this when I was younger, and it’s getting in touch with my younger self that leads to my support of the project now. It’s imperfect, but it may help some kids get through, and that makes it worthwhile.

    I understand why it can be beyond annoying to see a well-off, cissexual, white gay urban man promising all the queer youth that it will “get better” without acknowledging the privileges that have contributed to his now-awesome life, privileges not shared by a great many of the queer youth he’s trying to reach. I still think the broader project may help at least a lot of that youth envision a realistic better tomorrow. I hope.

  2. seanz permalink
    October 4, 2010 10:00 AM

    i was a bit irritated that these “rich white dudes” were talking about how it gets better but ultimately down at the middle of it all if it helps even just one kid out there then it did its job. I’m didn’t grow up in a religious house but i did grow up in a rural area and i’m thankful that i had a mother who told me the same thing it would get better once i was done with highschool. In most ways she was correct.

  3. meghann permalink
    October 4, 2010 10:22 AM

    Well I know that when I was a young queer teen who hated myself a video of heterosexual yodeling Jewel telling me that “it gets better” sure would make all my troubles go away. While this whole “it gets better” video thing was created with good intentions, it’s getting out of hand. I understand that certain celebrities need to remain relevant to their gay fans, but this really should be something that they stay out of. What can a young gay teen learn from Jewel saying, “it gets better?” Being gay is not the same as living out of your volkswagen for a year in your late teens so that you can have something tortured to write about. And Eve, if you can’t grow some balls and come out of the closet, don’t tell me that “it gets better.” For some people it doesn’t get better, and hearing that it does from some straight pop singer is inappropriate. Show your support for your gays some other way.

    • msjacks permalink*
      October 4, 2010 1:35 PM

      I agree with you for the most part, but that’s not the crux of what I wrote about. Dan Savage is an active member of the queer community and has something to contribute to the discussion. He has a story of his own to tell, and it’s something that could be meaningful to a lot of people.

      • meghann permalink
        October 4, 2010 4:26 PM

        He often talks to gay kids in the south or small towns in the middle of nowhere, and he always tells them the same thing. He basically tells them to do their time and focus on their 18th birthday when they can get the hell out of there. Which is kind of not that easy. For him to sit there and be like, “it’s only a few years,” shows that he’s not really in touch with youth in those situations. A few years is an eternity. I mean I guess if watching a video of Dan Savage telling you everything is going to turn out find makes someone feel better that’s cool but it’s not going to change the world

      • msjacks permalink*
        October 4, 2010 4:33 PM

        I don’t think he believes it’ll change the world, though. I think he thinks it’s one of about a trillion solutions. If it makes one kid feel better, and if it inspires other adults to help out in ways that they think will work, then It Gets Better is a totally worthwhile project.

      • October 5, 2010 6:40 PM

        Meghann, you are using the Perfect Solution Fallacy to a tee:

        Just because a solution is flawed does not mean we have to discard it. If it solves part of a problem, it still has value.

  4. October 4, 2010 10:40 AM

    I sincerely wish that the internet had been around when I was a self-injuring teenager. I never thought I would live to be 30. Just imagine if we had found each other on LJ 10 years earlier, Robin.

    Dan’s video says the same thing he has said over and over to every kid that calls him, desolate over some injustice wreaked upon them by their bigoted family or peers. The difference is that this message is now free-standing, not surrounded by sex and relationship advice. For the half decade or so I have been reading or listening to him, he’s said, “It gets better. Get out as soon as you can, and just hold on til then.” In cases where the kids are being abused, he has provided hotlines to call. I think I even remember him giving scholarship advice.

    I wish I had had any sort of hero or role model as a teenager. All those religious classes, all the lies my parents told me, they all said “It’s not gonna get better until you die, and even then you might burn in hell so repent repent repent.” I had no idea that it could get better until way into my 20s.

    This is a very insightful post and I hope some queer kid reads it and keeps living.

    “Baby, this town rips the bones from your back; it’s a death trap; it’s a suicide rap. You gotta get out while you’re young, cuz tramps like us…”

  5. Cale permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:00 AM

    I love this, and I’m very glad you wrote it. I think that, though there are an overwhelming amount of gay white men posting videos, there are also many many different people sharing their stories, and this project, limited as it may be, allows people to use their own voices, their own language and their own experiences, which is pretty incredible.

    Also, why did you assume that the video posted by those two women was outside the gay community? Or do you just mean that gay-white-male community?

    But yeah, I’ve been engaged in some discussions with people who are being nothing but critical of the whole project, and are missing the forest for the trees a little bit. My initial response to the project was not positive, but as I watched more and more videos I realized, 1. it is incredibly helpful, inspiring and beneficial even if just for one kid and 2. I have the opportunity to record my own, criticize something if i want, offer my own perspective, and hopefully reach someone who may not have been reached by another video.

    Thats all. Oh and your last paragraph was right on.

  6. Cale permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:09 AM

    Also– just realized who was in that video! still though, i definitely don’t assume they are outside the gay community.

    • msjacks permalink*
      October 4, 2010 1:36 PM

      I don’t necessarily assume that they’re completely outside of it, but they’re not vocally a part of it, either. I figure that if a celebrity’s still in the closet in this day and age, things didn’t necessarily “get better” for them. Consequently, they probably shouldn’t be telling others that it’ll get better.

      • Cale permalink
        October 4, 2010 7:52 PM

        I dunno, I think that the whole “you are in charge of your life” thing sounds like her justification for not coming out yet. In my head, she really wants to but can’t for her career, but she is out and happy within a small group of friends and family, and so it got better for her, and now she is doing what she can to speak out to queer youth without denying or admitting her own identity. But I am completely making all of that up.

        Sorry, the reason that I initially wrote what I did was because I didn’t realize it was that Ciara, I thought that just happened to be her name, so I was like…errr…they both seemed pretty in the gay community to me. But then I realized what was going on.

    • msjacks permalink*
      October 4, 2010 11:10 PM

      Well, this is something that definitely threw me.

      But still, I maintain that if she came out it’d be worth a whole lot.

      • Cale permalink
        October 5, 2010 12:49 AM

        Oh yeah, thats a much better video than beyonce’s version. I agree though. Apparently most of Ciara’s videos are “full of lesbians” as my friend just told me.

  7. Caitlin permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:37 AM

    Thanks for posting this. I think it’s unfortunate that what is really solid advice has become lost under this wave of righteous indignation. I am not gay but I have a tiny bit of understanding, as I grew up in a state and in a religion that demands conformity, to the point where I felt like a weirdo just for having liberal feminist politics and for being a reader. I coped by reminding myself on a daily basis that I would be an adult soon and that I would then be free to live the life I wanted. And I would give the exact same advice to any teenager who came to me with similar problems.

    • Caitlin permalink
      October 4, 2010 12:55 PM

      Ugh, I am so tired and inarticulate right now. I don’t mean to say that growing up as a straight girl in LDS Utah was the same as growing up as a gay kid pretty much anywhere, just that I can relate on a very tiny level to the way certain environments will do everything they can to pound the individuality out of you.

      • msjacks permalink*
        October 4, 2010 1:39 PM

        It’s cool, I get what you’re saying and I agree completely! A lot, maybe even most, of my youth alienation centered around being “weird” and reading books and having progressive politics. My sexuality baffled me for awhile; I don’t think I had a solid enough grasp on it to be made fun of for it. When I wrote this I was thinking about all of the ways in which rural and/or religiously indoctrinated kids are tormented. I wanted to write something a bit more all-encompassing. So I’m glad that it spoke to you.

  8. October 4, 2010 12:56 PM

    till i read this i had no idea that people were coming out against this project. the blog you link to makes me angry. as you’ve said, what is wrong with encouragement? i think this is an important movement- last week’s suicide of the student at rutgers opened a lot of eyes in NYC and has people (my log cabin boss included) wanting to get involved. wanting to help people who are going through what they went through. what’s wrong with that? from where i’m standing, this project is bringing all sorts of people, gay and straight, together and hopefully getting the attention of some helpless kids out there.
    this kind of thing could be useful outside of the gay community as well. who didn’t feel at some point that things were pointless? is there any teenager out there who never got depressed, never thought about suicide? i doubt it. when you’re that young, everything seems so intense, and you don’t have the world view to see that everyone around you is going through their own intense crap. it takes a village, so why not try to make other people’s lives better in any way that you possibly can?

  9. Brigdh permalink
    October 4, 2010 6:23 PM

    Thanks so much for this post.

    Although I, personally, am quite fond of Dan Savage, I do understand that there are valid criticisms of things he’s said in the past. That said, I feel like a lot of the backlash over the “It Gets Better’ Project is really losing sight of potential it has to do good. It isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of representing the gay community, or of empowering people. But it’s not trying to be! It’s just trying to prevent teen suicide. And I think it can help with that effort.

    Anyway, thanks. I’m really glad to see people defending the project, because I think it’s worthwhile.

  10. October 5, 2010 11:07 AM

    I just wanted to let you know that your post brought me to tears–in a good way. I, too, grew up in an extremely rural, religious environment in Northern California as a queer writer/artist type. As a teenager, I was very often suicidal and the two big attempts I made on my life were thwarted by my mother figuring out what was going on the last second and saving me and I remember being depressed that I couldn’t even by successful at that. Eventually I latched onto the idea that I was going to be a writer and that I was going to go to college and that I’d be a wildly successfully writer at a ridiculously young age.

    When I was 18, I got the fuck out. But when success didn’t come as easily as I had dreamed as a teenager, I would get angry with myself throughout my younger 20s. But your post actually made me realize something very important: dreaming big is what ultimately kept me alive. And so it’s okay that I’m currently living a smaller life, because at least I am living. I may not have been able to live up the crazy expectations I had set up for myself, but that’s okay. Those crazy expectations are why I’m able to build up to a slow rolling boil.

    Thank you for this realization. I feel like I have finally made peace with my inner 20-year old.

    • msjacks permalink*
      October 5, 2010 11:58 AM

      Thanks for commenting, and thanks for being alive. Big hugs from the other coast.

  11. Donné permalink
    October 8, 2010 5:11 PM

    I too thank you for this post. As with all types of activism, often it is easy for us to sit, critique, and rip apart each and every detail of someone’s work. Being a cynic, or critic for that matter is easy. Anyone can do it. Not everyone can do what Dan Savage is trying to do. Not everyone is motivated enough to try and create change like he is.
    Obviously it’s not enough either. So instead of wasting time writing about what Dan is doing wrong, figure out what we can do in conjunction with Dan’s work.

  12. October 8, 2010 7:44 PM

    I’m an old guy, getting ones youthful rocks off by burning down someone elses joy is not helpful, fun but not helpful…
    Jimmy and I Just celebrated our 25th anniversy, thats what you will miss, enough said: as a sacred-humanist non-religious person, this is all there is, you, me and the one we love or will love. Create your own community. Make it better. What asserative tools do you need.

  13. October 15, 2010 8:13 PM

    Thank you for this point of view – I think the It Gets Better Project is a great thing and hopefully gives kids who feel like they can’t go something to live for.
    I also wrote a post on this subject – please stop by:

  14. October 21, 2010 2:53 PM

    Thank you for your insightful post. I would have to say that I really don’t understand most of the anger generated by this project, and quite frankly, it makes me rather angry in turn. Why must people always be so fundamentally negative and self-involved? Why can they not look at the good something might potentially do for others, even if it might not have helped them in particular? At the end of the day, the It Gets Better Project offers support and greater visibility to gay kids, and in my opinion, it is exactly what we need more than anything else right now. It isn’t queer politics that is going to change the fabric of American culture or make kids feel more okay in their own skin–it’s seeing one’s friends, neighbours, brothers, and sisters, standing up together to admit that they are gay, that this fact hasn’t determined the person they are or their value in the world; that they have carved their own path in life, and that it has worked out for the best.

    When I was a teenager, I felt so hopelessly alienated; I was desperate for that kind of affirmation, which just wasn’t around. And yes–even to see someone like Jewel or Kathy Griffin saying it would have made a difference to me, given me more hope for the future. Why should it be a bad thing to have straight people showing their support, too? All it does is send the message that being gay is all right, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. It might not help you, per se, but that does not negate its potential value. Meghann wrote that this project isn’t going to change the world, but I could not disagree more. If you help even one lonely, alienated kid to have hope, to know that there is a broader community out there offering support, and that life does indeed get better if he or she is willing to make it–well, in my mind, that *is* changing the world. Maybe it only changes the world one person at a time, but is that not the root of all profound change?

    And honestly, I think this is exactly the kind of thing the general public can benefit from as well–seeing more examples of happy well-adjusted gay people who are living good lives can certainly not be a bad thing, especially when one lives in less urban, liberal areas where role-models probably aren’t as available.

    Finally, I get really tired of all this bashing of supposedly privileged while people making videos. For God’s sake–show them respect them for having the courage and compassion to make a video, and if you don’t look like them or feel them indicative of your background, then let your own voice be heard. Don’t castigate them for your own insecurity. And do not assume that just because someone is ‘privileged’ means it is one iota easier for them to grow up gay. It does not make it any less alienating, traumatic, or difficult. Some of the wealthier families I have known have been many times more likely to apply pressure on their children to be straight and fit into the kind of society in which they grew up. Growing up in such a family myself, the pressure almost killed me; I was unable to reconcile the world I was expected to be a part of with the fact that I was gay, and the end result was that I simply could not envision a future in which I had any place. I thought of killing myself daily for years. The fact that I was white and privileged did not make this any easier. This conversation should be about supporting kids and letting them know a brighter future is out there–classism and racism has no part in this. I repeat–if you don’t feel the people making videos reflect your experience, then make one of your own! Problem solved.

  15. October 30, 2010 12:05 AM

    GLBT teens already know that “It gets better” when you become an adult and are no longer in highschool. I agree that the whole IGB project seems to tell GLBT teens to “Just stick it out! Turn the other cheek! Ignore the HS bullies!” instead of going to the Administration or talking to teachers.

    Dan Savage is a hypocrite and he is VERY misogynistic, biphobic, and transphobic. He also basically blamed blacks in California for passing prop 8 in a rather hateful way. I find it odd how people are practically worshiping him now but they’re forgetting how he’s not that tolerant toward bisexuals, women, or Trans people.

    • msjacks permalink*
      November 4, 2010 12:18 PM

      I don’t see people worshiping him- or I’m not, anyway. I also have criticisms of some of the advice that Dan Savage gives people. However, it’s worth mentioning that I have heard him improve over the years. He used to speak terribly of fat people, for example, but now I read and hear him cheering on fat people for having healthy perceptions of their own sexuality, and completely shaming and mocking men who are clearly attracted to fat people but try to cover it up by being fat-hating assholes. As a fat person, this makes me feel a lot better about accepting what he has to say in other arenas.

      That said, I think it’s extremely dangerous to write a person off entirely because you don’t agree with some (or even most) of what he’s said. It doesn’t allow room for change. It creates a divisive atmosphere- either “you’re with us or you’re against us”, which doesn’t allow room for discussion, for learning, for educating. For people who may have a hard time speaking up for whatever sociologically-based reason (i.e bullying), this is a kind of silence that, I imagine, is terrifying.

      As progressives or leftists or whatever faction we decide that we belong to, we cannot allow this type of rhetoric to permeate our communities. This, to me, doesn’t feel much different than when folks on the right say that people who’ve committed crimes can’t change and should stay in prison forever. I won’t defend everything that Dan Savage says and does, but I won’t write off his positive contributions because I don’t agree with some of what he says.

      ETA: and I certainly won’t stop hoping to hear the best from Dan Savage, and from everyone out there.

  16. Rural Red State Gay permalink
    May 2, 2011 4:53 PM

    “it is a mistake to discount the voices of queer kids who feel trapped by the constraints of rural or religious life. ”

    Love it…. Dan recently told a 19 year old lesbian in Tulsa (metro population just under a million… and a TERRIFIC gay community) that in order for her meet someone she need to move out of her “small town”… that’s it … that’s his solution.


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