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