Why I’m not gaga over “It Gets Better”


Photo courtesy of See-ming Lee


I wrote last week about the sudden newsworthiness of LGBT youth suicide. Certainly it’s been around for decades, and there have been and are people who study these people and these moments, but collectively, their work, analysis, and recommendations haven’t made it to center stage. So it frustrates me to see personalities emerge from the woodwork to tout their initiatives, as if we’re seeing a meteoric rise in suicide, or as if the world merely needed their guidance to avert the tide of anguish.

We love to found offenses against mammoth dilemmas. The “War on Poverty.” The “War on Drugs.” The “War on Terror.” What all of these have in common is the idea that we can throw resources at a problem and the problem will fizzle out into nothingness. Often what we enlist for our armies of ideas are simple solutions: educate kids about marijuana, give black women dresses so they can look better in job interviews, or send another brigade to a war-torn country. Are these bad ideas? Not at all, they’re necessary. There are plenty of studies to suggest that Head Start as a program really does lift underserved children’s test scores in school. And the Dress for Success program does a lot more than hand out garments to working-class and minority women; it’s got a comprehensive approach to career training and self-confidence building.

And yet our takeaways remain simple. “Just Say No.” Abstinence-only sex education. Popular theories on social problems push one of two camps: individual (moral) failings or unwinnable wars. It makes me raise my eyebrows that neither of these options allows for the possibility of forward progress. We can’t whack-a-mole our way out of gay suicide—which I suppose sounds particularly antithetical to the goal—but neither can we sweep the problem up and call it a day.

In the midst of the media storm around finally noticing that LGBT youth are bullied and unhappy, steps in Dan Savage. A Seattle-based columnist who mostly plies sex advice, he has also gotten political from time to time (read: a lot of the time). He started a furor in the wake of the Proposition 8 vote in California by asserting that straight people of color had voted in huge numbers against same-sex marriage, with nary a shred of evidence to support such claims, and against exit poll and other data that showed that African-American voters were not why Prop 8 came out the way it did. He’s gone on the record, via his column in The Stranger, to say that there is no such thing as a male bisexual. And I can’t count the number of times he’s referred to transfolk as “she-males,” “transgendereds,” “guys with pies,” and other lovely monikers that I don’t like to see in print. As recently as last March, he came out with some bazonka of a piece about how the Washington State Attorney Rob McKenna was a closeted female-to-male transsexual, in order to garner public condemnation of McKenna’s insistence that the State of Washington should join suit against the Federal Government over the health care reform bill. I didn’t like McKenna’s suit either, but opposing him for being FTM? And when he isn’t? And when Savage already knows he isn’t? That’s a lot of horse hockey around which to wrap one’s mind.

So this is the guy who’s going to start a campaign against LGBT suicide? When he doesn’t acknowledge some of the B, mocks the T, and mostly ignores the L? I don’t see myself donating to his cause anytime soon.

The message itself is problematic. The whole “it gets better” is a nice, simple, clean-cut concept, much like our boy Dan himself. But the whole problem of being bullied out of existence is that these kids don’t see the possibility of waiting for a better day. What if tomorrow is just out of reach? What if every day is filled with dread? I am glad to see the heartfelt commentaries by people like Ellen DeGeneres and Tim Gunn. There is something positive in knowing that successful adults were once despairing teenagers, and they made it through. But just knowing others have made it can be read all to easily as “well, they’re stronger than me.” Our minds, when depressed, are able to read any moment or situation against our own self-confidence. I knew there were well adjusted transpeople as I was making my decision to transition, too, but I still made arrangements to take my own life at one point. Knowing “it gets better” is far, far from enough to do anything about the systematic oppression of a group of people. But perhaps it makes Savage feel mushy in his shoes.

Even LGBT youth have spoken out against his initiative. We need help now, is their response. They’ve begun their own project: Make It Better. How fantastic of them. In that light, I want to encourage everyone to find the local organizations in their communities that support LGBT youth. You don’t have to be in the community to provide support, either. These kids are our kids, after all. We need to get out of our own comfort zones and get involved. If we can stop bullying, great. If we can’t stop the bullying itself, we can help give young adults better coping skills, act as sounding boards, help them really visualize life after all of this tension.

For other groups to support, here is a short list for people in Washington State:

You can also contact these national organizations and ask how you can volunteer to support sexual minority youth:

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Categories: ponderings


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12 Comments on “Why I’m not gaga over “It Gets Better””

  1. Jeannine Love
    October 6, 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    This is great Ev. Thanks for writing it. I am sharing now…

    • evmaroon
      October 7, 2010 at 12:32 am #

      Thanks, Jeannine! ❤ to the enthusiastic professors of the world…

  2. October 7, 2010 at 6:41 am #

    I don’t think the “It Gets Better” initiative is perfect, or the sole solution necessary to bring us to a better place, but I think it’s a start. And if it encouraged some kids to begin their own project, if it puts an issue further in the spotlight, and if it gives even a small handful of kids a sense of hope, and of being less alone, then I don’t think it’s a bad idea.

    Dan Savage and his many failings aside, hearing a group of adults who have survived, and thrived, especially when those adults tell you where you can get help (which some of them did), can be a good thing. I know when I was young it helped me to see and meet adult women who embraced my own brand of different and made successful lives for themselves.

    • evmaroon
      October 7, 2010 at 8:57 am #

      As a concept, it seems like a perfectly fine statement to make to young adults, but in a world where people feel better by liking political groups on Facebook, buying organic in the grocery store, and driving hybrid cars, it feels awfully inadequate to me. When kids are sobbing about how to make it through another day, watching a video of someone else’s success isn’t necessarily the thing that will pull them out of a funk. It’s not a coherent program–there is no specific curriculum, so who knows which video a kid will watch first? And this is content–these videos, I mean–that is ostensively about the person in the video,not about the struggling youth. In that way it’s more a message about someone else’s privilege, even if specific videos exhort kids not to take their own lives.

      But really, if I have the opportunity to support someone other than Dan Savage in what has been an issue near and dear to my heart for many years now, that’s my preference. I’m not interested in giving a man who is himself a bully, any more of a pulpit. I do agree with you, though, that if it creates some pushback within the queer community to start other projects or highlight projects that were already in motion,like the Trevor Project, then that is a good thing.

  3. Nicoline
    April 27, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    Very well said, Everett! Though I like the idea of “It gets better” and it’s worth it if it even prevents one LGBT teen from taking his or her life, it’s also true that a better future may not necessarily help someone who is in despair *now.* I like Dan Savage’s column, but I had no idea he made such demeaning comments. Exit Dan Savage, I guess…

    • evmaroon
      April 27, 2011 at 11:29 am #

      I like the combined approach…if “It gets better” is a message that works for some kids, then great. If making it better now with more resources and support works for others, great. I would personally be willing to dangle over a water tank and have Tea Party members throw pies at me if it would save lives. I just don’t want to hear a bully tell me he’s the self-appointed head of an anti-bullying campaign.

  4. evmaroon
    November 7, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    No, we transgender activists have brought discussions of transphobia and trans inclusion to a wider audience. The project It Gets Better falls short. Dan Savage does not deserve accolades for refusing to admit that he has left a legacy of biphobia, transphobia, and race insensitivity.


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