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Define "Better"



This probably won't be one of my more popular blog entries. It has to do with being gay, with society, with the hardships that life throws our way, with wanting to belong, and joining a trend. And it has to do with suicide -- never an easy subject. Yet, I feel compelled to put pen to paper (so to speak), if for no other reason than to collect my own thoughts on the matter. So, I'm sorry if I offend you during any portion of this post. Having said that, let's begin.

You've likely heard of the It Gets Better Project. Its sub-title is: 'Give Hope to LGBT Youth.' The Wikipedia page about it has reams of information regarding the project. Most of the information I was already aware of. Following are some of the more salient portions:

It Gets Better is an Internet-based project founded in the United States by Dan Savage and his husband[1] Terry Miller[2] on September 21, 2010, in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or because their peers suspected that they were gay. Its goal is to prevent suicide among LGBT youth by having gay adults convey the message that these teens' lives will improve.
I want to talk about this portion of the project first. It is, without very much doubt, the crux of the project. Adult gay men and women letting younger gay men and women know that, for them, life has gotten better. That they, too, experienced hardship and trauma, that they may have contemplated suicide, that things once seemed dismal and without hope. But that they managed to stick with it, to stick with life, remaining steadfast, and that life has gotten better for them. The message? Look at me, young man or woman, and be inspired. Have hope.

This is powerful stuff, and shouldn't be taken lightly. And that, dear reader, is my main concern regarding this project. I believe it to have started with the best of intentions. Its cause is noble, without question. I have watched some of the It Gets Better videos and been moved to tears. Some I have watched with little more than a shaking of the head. There are two main problems as I see it with the It Gets Better Project, as it has evolved and grown in popularity.

The first issue I have with It Gets Better is that it seems to have turned into a fad, defined as: 'An intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, esp. one that is short-lived; a craze.' Everyone and their uncle seems to have made an It Gets Better video. And, I'm sorry, but not everyone should. I'm not suggesting someone be made arbiter of these things. But I am suggesting that folks think a little more honestly before deciding to make them.

No better example of the need for honest self-assessment before making these important videos can be found, than within the obituaries of young gay people who have committed suicide. Their tragic obits leave their lives strewn across the internet, laid bare for all to read and be saddened by. Shockingly (at least to me), many of these post-mortem write-ups mention how they had done an It Gets Better video. I often do a double-take. Why? Why, if your life was so difficult that the hardships you were facing were making you want to end it all, did you make a video big-upping said life, telling others to look at you, and know that things will "get better?"

I don't pretend that anyone is perfect (myself, least of all). I know that our lives are filled with ups and downs, and obstacles to overcome. We're all pretty much aware of this. So, a perfect life is obviously not a prerequisite for making an It Gets Better video. But, for the love of god, a life so tenuous that it ends up self-destructing should not be one to hold up as inspiration to others. It would seem to defeat the entire purpose of the project.

Before I get into the second issue I have with the It Gets Better movement, let's take a look at the pertinent passage from its Wikipedia page (emphasis mine):

The project is now organized on its own website, the It Gets Better Project,[5] and includes more than 30,000 entries, with more than 40 million views, from people of all sexual orientations, including many celebrities.

This leads to my second problem with this project (at least how it has evolved). No offense (really), but why are non-gay people telling gay youth how things will get better? They aren't likely to have experienced the same trials & tribulations (regarding sexual orientation) as those they are speaking to. They haven't gone through the same hardships. I understand that they are well-intentioned, but it would seem to distort the message. And it can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Case-in-point: The professional US football team The Denver Broncos have refused to make an It Gets Better video, despite being petitioned by an 8,000-strong signature line-up from Change.org. And, really, why should they? Are any of them (openly) gay? If so, then they should make the video, not the entire team. And if all of the team is heterosexual, then what personal inspiration regarding sexual orientation would they have to impart to homosexual youth? It would be like, if there had been the internet widely available during the 1960's Civil Rights Movement, white folks making It Gets Better videos for young black people.

Aren't these videos supposed to be personal? Isn't the purpose of this project to have adult gay men and women explain to their younger gay counterparts, 'Hey, I've been where you are. I know how tough it is. But I made it. My life is so much better now. Yours can be too.' That seems to be how it started, but not anymore. We now have folks making these videos, and then killing themselves. We now having heterosexuals telling young homosexuals how good things are going to be for them. Something is wrong here.

Please don't get me wrong. I feel for those whose lives are so fragile that suicide seems like the only solution. It is a prime definition of 'tragic.' But, suicide is rarely a sudden event, and it is often a very selfish decision. We should not judge, but we should acknowledge that those in such pain are perhaps not the best ones to be telling those younger than them that "it gets better." I also appreciate the good intentions of our heterosexual friends and allies. But I do find it odd that they would make such videos on our behalf.

It Gets Better is a wonderfully well-meaning project. It had great intent at its inception. I fear, however, that it has lost its way. It has become a fad, a craze. It is becoming a tad aggressive and unfocused. Anyone with a life story and access to a video camera is making (and is being asked to make) one. And doesn't that defeat the purpose?

Comments

  1. Thank you for your very thoughful inquiry. I agree (and am a supporter of IGBP) but wonder how the message may be getting diluted. However, I also question whether blaming the people who eventually go on to commit suicide is helpful. Creating these videos is likely an aspirational act for them, creating an intention that they cannot sustain because they lack other resources and support. I think you bring up very good questions, and are right on target. We should be asking ourselves what we are doing and why - especially when we are being swept up in something this big - this is after all, how bullying itself thrives. Thank you for deepening the discussion.

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  2. Thanks so much for your insightful comments. I agree with you.

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