it gets better, but only if you’re gay?

This ad from the Serbian Suicide Prevention Office projects "You are not alone" onto the water below a bridge in response to high suicide rates. (Image from theatlantic.com, h/t the Daily Dish)

The other day, I posted a link to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, designed to provide voices of inspiration and compassion to LGBT teens going through tough times without access to someone who understands their plight. I think this is a phenomenal resource, and has the potential to do a huge amount of good while only requiring the courage to speak up on the part of those making the videos.

Megan McArdle at The Atlantic commended Savage’s efforts, but asked why people aren’t doing this for other groups besides gay kids. She specifically noted that she was not asking Savage to change his project. Andrew Sullivan excerpted her comments, calling her take on it “niggling”. She got a variety of comments at her blog, ranging from “good idea” to “Can’t we EVER just let something be about gay kids alone?” There were more follow-up comments at the Daily Dish comparing McArdle’s suggestion to asking the United Negro College Fund to give scholarship to Asian kids, saying that gay kids are subject to special circumstances, saying that straight kids had so many more resources.

The trials to which LGBT teens in our country are subjected are horrendous, and we need to do everything that we can to make it easier for them to express openly what they feel secretly. Savage’s project is definitely a hugely important step in the right direction. But I think that the comments calling for this concept to be reserved only for LGBT kids are misguided, and in some cases, counterproductive.

The most important point that I think some people miss in these videos is that while they are aimed at LGBT kids, there is nothing about their stories that restricts their message (that it gets better) to those groups unless you assume that straight kids cannot have gay and lesbian role models. Personally, I have struggled with and to a certain extent continue to struggle with depression, though certainly of a different nature* than the depression faced by LGBT youth. But the fact that I don’t know exactly how it feels to go through the things that LGBT youth have to go through does not in any way prevent me or any other straight person from watching one of these videos and saying “Hey, wait a second, it can get better.” That is exactly what I felt when I saw this video:

When I watched that video, the main thing that I saw was a happy couple. I am not gay, nor do I have plans to have a child in the foreseeable future, but I think those details are unimportant. Savage sums up the takeaway message of the video, to anyone who is willing to hear it:

“If there are 14, 15, 16 year olds . . . 13, 12 year olds watching this video, what I’d love you to take away from it, really, is that IT GETS BETTER. However bad it is now, it gets better. And it can get great, it can get awesome. You’re life can be amazing, but you have to tough this period of your life out and you have to live your life so that you’re around for it to get amazing.”

Regardless of who the video is intended for, no one can prevent me from internalizing that message. The fact that my depression stems from different experiences than what LGBT youth go through is no more relevant (in my eyes) than the fact that the happy relationship that Dan and Terry are in is a different happiness than I see for myself in the future. The underlying message remains the same.

The other thing that strikes me about claims that this should be a project that is unique to LGBT youth is that it implicitly discounts the suffering of other kids. This hits especially close to home for me right now because of the recent suicide of a family friend, the son of friends of my parents, a young man who I used to babysit when he was younger. Reading those comments, all I could think was how hard it was for me to understand why anyone would want to discourage efforts to put a positive message out there where he might have seen it. A frequent response to McArdle was that LGBT kids are going through a unique struggle, and don’t have the positive role models and outlets that straight kids have, and that’s what makes “It Gets Better” necessary. My response would be to ask how these people know what role models are available to straight kids going through these issues? And how can you ever say, until there are no more kids committing suicide, that there are enough role models, or the right mix of role models?

I happen to know that Colin, the family friend I talked about above, had great role models (loving parents, supportive friends) and was in therapy. But that wasn’t enough. Maybe nothing would have been enough. But maybe there’s someone out there whose story could have reached him, could have made him see that it can get better. Maybe it was Dan and Terry’s video, and the happiness that they have clearly found in each other, would have made him think that life was worth living. Or maybe it was a video that hasn’t been made yet, and if some of these commenters have their way, will never get made. How would his taking solace from a video like that diminish the value of this project for LGBT kids?

Some final thoughts: like McArdle, I am not saying that Savage’s project should change it’s mission statement, but that these videos should be encouraged for other groups as well. Some commenters criticized McArdle for not making her own video, and they might say the same to me. I would respond that while I have a lot of hope that it will get better, I am not in a place right now where I would consider myself a credible voice that it gets better. When that day comes, I may put it into a video. But until then, I can only applaud those who do have the stories to tell and the willingness to share.

* I say “of a different nature” here because I am hesitant to even attempt to compare the magnitude of the depression that I have felt with that felt by others. How can you compare the magnitudes of something that cannot be measured?

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2 Responses to it gets better, but only if you’re gay?

  1. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Sorry to hear about Colin. Very brave and intelligent post Doug – I’ll be posting about the recent suicide of our mutual friend from high school in the next week, though I’ve been putting it off for fear of doing her a disservice. You’re exactly right in pointing out that non-gay people can learn just as much from gay people as anyone else – the point isn’t that they’re gay, it’s that they are people making it through difficult times.

    I also like your point about the ridiculousness of people claiming the rights to particular kinds of suffering – this relates to one of my central critiques of society, which is that most of us go around acting as if all the issues and challenges in the world are disconnected and should therefore be separately addressed, whereas in reality systems theory provides a much better model for understanding the complexities of our world. It is valuable to have targeted messages like the one you describe in the “It Gets Better” project, and the more of these specifically targeted messages there are, the better. But if we somehow imagine that the suffering of one group is completely unrelated to the suffering of another, we overlook the commonality of our shared suffering and how that shared experience can get us through the hard times. Reading back through that, I realize it didn’t make much sense, but I’ve got to get to sleep – so it’ll do for now.

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