I was reminded yesterday that we’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the It Gets Better project, that anti-bullying campaign from Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller. On September 21, 2010, they made their now-iconic YouTube video telling queer youth that they should hang in there, because someday things will be better than they seem right now. Dan and Terry had been catapulted into action, they said, because of the recent media attention on a number of gay suicides, all of which, the narrative went, came in context of those kids being bullied and harassed by their peers. That Dan and Terry were really only speaking about young gay men and not the gamut of youth on the LGBT spectrum, and that the media lavished its attention only on recent white gay men’s deaths was not a topic Dan wished to discuss, though I and many others attempted to do so.
I suppose once upon a time the coalition of “gay and lesbian”—for nobody gave a fig about bisexuals or transgender folks—was fine with each side taking up its own causes. I could point to the AIDS crisis for smashing up the party scene and giving gay men a catastrophic awakening to their own political power and need to organize to effect change. Maybe this was the point at which lesbians and gay men worked together, in groups like Act Up and Queer Nation, to call attention to the near-total lack of government response to the virus and its devastation in the gay community. Twenty years later, our political needs are seen as much more in line as a coalition of LGBT. Dan’s focus on white gay men is well out of step with this evolution, and I write this understanding that LGBT is by no means a lock-step community. We argue, we debate, we have strands of separatism, and lots of distrust.
My initial concern about It Gets Better stemmed from the willful ignorance that for many queer youth, it does not necessarily get better, and when one is in the thick of acidic harassment, hearing that you need to just see it through may not be the kind of assistance that matters. One size of remedy does not fit all, but more importantly, no resources come along with the flood of videos. I for one wasn’t surprised when on the heels of It Gets Better, a group of queer high school students began the Make It Better project, to inspire youth and adults to work to improve attitudes and school climates.
For his part, Dan Savage made the rounds of colleges nationwide, dedicated column space in The Stranger to the program, and compiled a book of essays from the videos and other people who wanted to speak about queer suicide, and sends some of the proceeds to organizations like The Trevor Project and GLSEN. Those are helpful activities, certainly, although much of these engagements are about Dan’s cult of personality and not an anti-bullying, anti-suicide agenda. He is a sex columnist, after all.
But September 2011 has rolled on by, and there has been no resurgence of video-making, no attention on the anniversary of It Gets Better save one column by Dan. There also hasn’t been but one media-noticed gay death, seemingly unattached to any larger system of homophobia or hate. Although Tyler Clemente’s roommate was charged with a hate crime last April—Clemente being one of the gay suicides that inspired It Gets Better—it received little notice. And with a string of homicides in Washington, DC, against trans women, in a city that has seen many decades of unabated transphobic violence, there would be rigorous, important ways to combine the first anniversary with a renewed urgency to fight violence against LGBT people.
Instead, nothing. I would have hoped that the legacy of It Gets Better would be more than the sum of many people talking about how great their lives are at 25, 30, or 50, and some donations to organizations that yes, really could use more support in these economic times. I would have hoped that we’d all see our connections to each other, our shared interests in surviving and thriving in a culture that continues to mock us and justify its anger toward us. Maybe it was too difficult to talk about anniversaries when we just endured the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. It’s hard to see a candlelight when a sun is shining next to it.
But the tributes to fallen Americans have faded, and some Americans feel they’re righteous enough to boo a gay serviceman simply because they don’t approve of gay people. That hateful sentiment is what we’re up against. Off-duty cops who lose no sleep after killing a trans woman. Students who have no shame about mocking the masculine girl who has never been on a date with a boy. Please, we need more than videos. Let the silence that has resettled around queer suicide be a sign that we can move past talking about ourselves and our trips to Paris, and get down to business in actually making life better for our next generation.