Political Promise

Why I hate the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign

In Alex Gabriel on October 12, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Dan Savage tells gay teenagers life will get better, but why should it have to? Alex Gabriel reports.

There’s something about social networking that makes campaigning easier. Last month when Protest the Pope was as its height, it spread via Facebook; when Ed Miliband made his conference speech, Twitter exploded. Following the recent suicide of a bullied gay teenager named Billy Lucas, columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better project on YouTube , inviting members of the LGBT community to make videos telling students facing high school homophobia about the successes they’ve had in life since they reached adulthood, and how their viewers can look forward to a better life once they’ve left. The initiative’s been lauded by activists, praised all over Facebook and attracted entries from celebrities like Kesha (I refuse to use the dollar sign), Ellen DeGeneres , Neil Patrick Harris  and the cast of Wicked ; but it has to be said that well-meaning campaigns aren’t always well thought through. Hold tight everybody, this one will be divisive – but as someone deeply concerned with the state of homophobia in education Dan Savage’s project troubles me hugely.

Harvey Milk said gay kids had to be given hope, and he was right – but he was talking about electing gay politicians, not accepting bashings during school. If you tell a student facing beatings or vandalism every day that their life will get better, you’re telling them that it has to stay dire for now. The philosophy of ‘it gets better’ has a definite ring of ‘blessed are the meek’, urging people to put up with persecution for the moment because a better time is bound to come for them later. People don’t commit suicide out of doubt that life will get better – they kill themselves because they’re tortured now. Every gay teenager who ever attempted suicide reached that point by telling themselves they could last till the misery stopped – I know, I’m one of them – and telling those people life will improve is hugely patronising, because this is what they tell themselves every hour of every day.

It’s also rather smug and a little insensitive – I’m not a psychologist, but something tells me people on the brink of killing themselves don’t relish the chance to hear about everyone else’s amazing lives. Do Dan Savage’s fans make their videos hoping life will become okay for depressive teens once they’ve heard someone else has it far better off than they do? Many participants say how lucky they were to have great friends, who helped them out of a terrible part of their lives; exactly – they were the lucky ones. Online communities are great for support, but not a substitute for actual friendships, and people who aren’t lucky enough to make them often don’t have a later to look forward to.

Compare them with people dying in the third world. Some people I know give money each month to pay for medicine, food supplies or clean water; other people I know spend their lives in those countries helping build communities; then there are the people who wear wristbands saying ‘Make Poverty History’. Rather than do anything to actually solve the problem wristband-wearers only acknowledge there is one, and I can’t help feeling It Gets Better is the same. It may actually be worse, because depending on life getting better only drives people further toward the edge. Dan Savage’s influence in the gay community is huge – if he really wants to solve homophobic bullying, why not actually do something about it?

14,889 people have subscribed to the project’s channel on on YouTube as I write this. Imagine the fighting fund you’d get if each of those people donated ten or twenty dollars – not to mention sponsorships from gay-friendly corporations and the possibilities for going viral on Facebook, Twitter and JustGiving. An organisation could be set up to do the work Schools Out does in the UK, fighting homophobia in the classroom; new regulations in education could be campaigned for, to make teachers address abuse when it happens. Failing that, Dan Savage wouldn’t even need to raise any money – he could simply campaign on YouTube with a better message. Gay teenagers don’t want life to get better, they want it to be better right this minute. Imagine if instead of #ItGetsBetter, we had a hashtag on Twitter called #MakeItBetter, telling bullied kids of all kinds to stand up for themselves.

Better still, we could have a slogan like ‘I’m tired of taking your crap.’ Contrary to Michael Urie’s video entry , a lot of bullies do stay bullies forever – often these are the very worst ones who become criminals, abusers and men who hate women. I didn’t realise it for a long time, but people who habitually victimise others will only stop if you make them; like any parasite, they can go through life feeding off one person after another. If you’re being picked on you have every right to protect yourself however is necessary, whether by telling someone or by finding out where they live. Morally it’s imperative that you do, because we can never know who else’s life someone will threaten.

That could never be a campaign, of course, because the American media’s image of LGBT people is based on them being helpless and victimised, unable to do things in life for themselves. When Adam Lambert performed at the American Music Awards last year he heavy-petted his keyboardist, simulated oral sex and walked his male dancers on a leather leash; on Ellen a week later, he demurely said he got carried away and ‘maybe went a little too far’. The song in question described a sadomasochistic relationship, and Lambert’s performance of it demonstrated the U.S. media’s chastity fetish – happy at times to tolerate gays as long as they need help, but reactionary once they’re in any way sexualised or provocative.

When I watch Glee I see Chris Colfer dancing to Beyoncé; when I search on Youtube for Proposition 8, I find straight campaigners like Cyndi Lauper and Ted Olson speaking out. I like these people hugely and couldn’t live without Glee, but where are the U.S. Peter Tatchells or Johann Haris, gay men who speak up for themselves and aren’t interested in wisecracks? Where are the Harvey Milk’s disciples now? There are men on the cover of Attitude who could pulverise you if you  called them faggots, but America paints LGBT people as incompetent victims in need of assistance, not independent members of society. I worry Dan Savage’s videos reinforce that image. Far from trying to combat homophobia, they only cement the idea that life (in school especially) is traumatic if you’re gay.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than consoling his audience by saying their lives will improve, he should tell them to fight for fairness in the present. The present, after all, is all we’ve got – Harvey Milk knew that, and he’d turn in his grave if he heard about this campaign.

Gay kids: you don’t have to count on life getting better, and you certainly don’t have to stick it out feeling helpless. If bigots pick on you, ask them to stop; if they don’t stop, kick the shit out of them.

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  1. An excellent and funny post. The campaign is an Elastoplast palliative cop out in terms of long term changes as you suggest but am sure it is better than a stony silence and will save lives and raise awareness if it’s just awareness they were aiming at then it worked.. Your point about the difference between Awareness and Action is well made and accurate. I describe the campaign step in between these two stages as the It Can Be Fixed phase which is a necessary step before action is taken/considered Your last sentence made me laugh out loud in a crowded train!

  2. This is a superb post, and I agree completely.

  3. of course like your web site however you need to take a look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very troublesome to tell the truth however I will surely come back again.

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