Let’s Make It Better Now

Growing up, I was incredibly insecure in my sexuality.  While mostly attracted to women, I was confused by my occasional attraction to men and my tendency to act in ways I was told were “effeminate.”  My response, project heterosexuality powerfully.  “You’re so GAY” and “You’re such a fag” commonly flew out of my mouth.  God forbid that the other kids know my confusion . . . that would risk torture.  What’s worse is that my powerful projection of heterosexuality likely only made it harder for those who were also questioning and confused.  It took me a long time to settle into a comfortable understanding of my sexuality.  I am happy and fortunate to say, though, that today I am comfortable and content with my understanding of my sexual orientation.  Sadly there are many who never settle into that happy and content space.

In the United States today, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers.  The leading cause of death among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth?  Suicide.  Further, “84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation” (GLSEN National School Climate Survey).  In recent weeks, a great deal of attention has gone toward LGBTQ (Q standing for Queer and Questioning) suicides and bullying, which is important in its focus that it draws to the issue.

Recent LGBTQ Youth Who Have Ended Their Lives
in the Face of Bullying

– Asher Brown, Houston, TX – 13 Years Old
– Seth Walsh, Tehachapi, CA – 13 Years Old
– Billy Lucas, Greensburg, IN – 15 Years Old
– Tyler Clementi, New York, NY – 18 Years Old
– Raymond Chase, Providence, RI – 19 Years Old
– Undoubted Others Who Have Not Received National Attention

Ellen DeGeneres has used her powerful platform to call for a wider movement to end bullying and to create a safer space for our LGBTQ youth.

The “Give A Damn” project is meant to raise awareness about LGBTQ Equality among all people (but with a particular attention paid to straight folks).  I particularly liked one of the points made in a video they have produced.  Too often I have heard conservative or religious leaders argue that LGBTQ suicide rates are so high because those who consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or who are questioning their sexuality are burdened by the weight of the sin inherent in such a life.  In their video about LGBTQ suicide, though, the folks at the “Give A Damn” project clearly state that suicide among LGBTQ young people “is not because they are gay or transgender.  It is because they feel isolated and alone.”

The reality is that we have created an atmosphere in this country where it is seen as shameful to be lesbian or gay or transgendered.  I say “we” because we all do share a role in this atmosphere.  We share a role when our prominent religious leaders constantly spout that being gay is evil.  We share a role when we tell our gay young men and women that they are not fit to serve in the armed forces because of who they love and are attracted to.  We share a role when we allow for gay-bashing language to fill our movies and television shows.  We share a role when we use this language ourselves.  So long as we allow these things to continue, we are responsible for creating the atmosphere that isolates and shames young people who are queer or questioning.

If we share a role in creating this atmosphere, that also means we all share a role in changing it.  It is important, then, that there are movements like The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, which has organized the “It Get’s Better” campaign, aimed at helping LGBTQ youth understand that it won’t always hurt in the way that it might right now.

“It Gets Better” and the other movements like it are tremendous steps in the right direction.  We need to help LGBTQ youth understand that there is a world outside of the pain that they have experienced.  We need to reach out and take the hands of our LGBTQ young people so that not another life is lost.  We need to reach out and also take the hands of our straight or questioning youth who feel validated in their heteronormativity when they create an environment of fear.  We need to stand up to our politicians and our media outlets and tell them that intolerance and fear-mongering are not acceptable.  However, we need to go further than even these things.

My friend Helen recently posted an incredible “Note” on facebook about the “It Gets Better” movement (note posted in its entirety in the comments section below). While she recognizes that “It Gets Better” “is a fantastic movement, as it serves the crucial purpose of letting young folks know that they are not the only ones,” it’s mindset is still one of tomorrow.  The focus of “It Gets Better” implies that we don’t have agency over the atmosphere in our schools or workplaces or social spaces.  Helen identifies four areas where the “It Gets Better” movement falls short (her words, not mine):

  1. You have to put up with it.
    No, no you don’t. Or at least, you shouldn’t have to. Yes, your priority should be to get out of High School alive (and I mean no disrespect to folks who stayed under the radar and/or in the closet to survive), but you have just as much right to be who you are as anyone else. You have a right to walk into school without wondering whether today is the day when your classmates find out about your sexual orientation, or when that bully in the hallway finally follows through with their muttered threats. You’re not the one that should be carrying the burden of other peoples’ ignorance. Demand your basic right to go to school without fearing for your well-being.
  2. After High School, all of your problems are over.
    One of the recent suicides related to homosexuality was a college student in NYC. Leaving your small town doesn’t mean that you leave behind heterosexism. GLBTQ people face bigotry everywhere. A lot of the time, things do get better as you get older. This is in large part due to the fact that you become more comfortable with who you are, and have the freedom to surround yourself with a supportive community. But there are still going to be ignorant people, taunts, and laws that deny you your right to be who you are.
  3. We can’t help you.
    That’s bullshit. I know that we can’t march into every school in the country and declare it a safe zone, but this idea that “queer adults” cannot reach queer youth is crap. We are not some strange sect that needs permission to interact with heteros. We are already in the school system, in the administration, the classroom, cleaning the school toilets and making the school lunches. It’s true that I might not get the best reception if I ask to give a lecture on homophobia at a public High School, but that’s not the only way. Get creative, people. The It Gets Better movement is an example of a creative way to reach youth. There must be other ways to change school policies, to train teachers in combating heterosexism, and to educate youth about the affects of sexual-orientation based bullying.
  4. This is a Queer issue.
    How many people were completely secure about their sexualities in Middle School and High School? It’s not only the GLBTQ kids that get called names, it’s not just the queers that are negatively affected by heterosexism. When you’re always afraid of being called a fag, there’s very little space to develop confidence in your own sexuality, whatever that may be. I could write an entire paper about the far-reaching affects of heterosexism, but let’s just say that every school kid would be better off without it. ALSO it’s not just up to the GLBTQ community to fight heterosexism in schools. Everyone has a responsibility to make life better for youth. Not only that, everyone has the power to make life better. Just try.

The reality is that the “It Gets Better” campaign must be paired with a “Let’s Make It Better Now” campaign.  We must commit ourselves every day to changing our reality, to providing no home to hate and intolerance.  We must choose to build the communities we want to see, communities built on love, openness, and trust.  We must make our spaces safe for all gender expression and sexual orientations.  We must speak out against slurs and jokes that only serve to hurt and degrade.  We must demand that our media displays all kinds of love (even if in the most subtle of ways).  Those of us who identify as Queer must remind our younger brothers and sisters that they are beautiful the way they are.  Those of us who identify as Straight must act as allies, ensuring that heterosexism has no place in our lives while also reminding our brothers and sisters that they are beautiful the way they are.  We must choose to stand up every day to the prejudice and bigotry that makes the “It Gets Better” campaign necessary.  We must make it better now.

Consider this the start of the “Make It Better Now” campaign, a campaign engendered in thought by Helen and carried out by each of us in our daily actions.  My first act in Making it Better is in my professional capacity.  My new website’s homepage reads as follows:

With the recent rise in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) student bullying and suicide, Jamie is proud to offer consulting and professional development for schools specifically designed to make schools “safe zones” for all sexual orientations.

It is my hope, then, that I can work with schools in a professional capacity to ensure that the school community is one safe for all gender identities and sexual orientations.  If I can help your school in this effort, please visit my “Contact” page.

I need to know that I am not alone in this work, but more importantly, our LGBTQ and Straight young people need to know that they are not alone in Making it Better Now!  Please share in the comments section and link this page to others so they can share what they are doing.  Please post your name, your location, and what you are doing to “Make It Better Now.” Whether one sentence or a novel, I need to know.  This community needs to know.  The world needs to know.

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12 thoughts on “Let’s Make It Better Now

  1. Helen’s Full Comments:

    “You’ve probably heard about the recent string of LGBTQ teenagers committing suicide. If not, just type “gay teen suicide” into the google news search engine. In response to this, columnist/activist Dan Savage has set up a youtube channel where people can post videos telling queer youth that it does, in fact, get better. You grow up and graduate from High School, move out of your parents’ home, and everything is swell.

    I think that this is a fantastic movement, as it serves the crucial purpose of letting young folks know that they are not the only ones, and all of that jazz. It’s great. I think that it will help a lot of kids, and the amount of support that it’s received is really heartwarming. It’s also not enough. We shouldn’t be telling kids that it gets better, we should be making it better now. I’m not the type of person that usually writes facebook notes about anything serious (not that I have a problem with people who do, it’s just not really my thing), but I have some things to say about the concerns of queer youth. The It Gets Better movement exemplifies what I think are some of the major issues in this area.

    In various writing and interviews, Savage implies, and sometimes says outright, that there is nothing we can really do to make things better for youth tormented in their schools and homes because of their sexual orientation. The message of the “It Gets Better” movement is that kids just have to put up with all this shit until they graduate and get out of bigot town, and that all that we as adult members of the queer community can do to help is remind them that high school isn’t forever. This message to youth (while well-meaning) is embedded, in my opinion, with multiple flawed assumptions:

    1) You have to put up with it.

    No, no you don’t. Or at least, you shouldn’t have to. Yes, your priority should be to get out of High School alive (and I mean no disrespect to folks who stayed under the radar and/or in the closet to survive), but you have just as much right to be who you are as anyone else. You have a right to walk into school without wondering whether today is the day when your classmates find out about your sexual orientation, or when that bully in the hallway finally follows through with their muttered threats. You’re not the one that should be carrying the burden of other peoples’ ignorance. Demand your basic right to go to school without fearing for your well-being.

    2) After High School, all of your problems are over.

    One of the recent suicides related to homosexuality was a college student in NYC. Leaving your small town doesn’t mean that you leave behind heterosexism. GLBTQ people face bigotry everywhere. A lot of the time, things do get better as you get older. This is in large part due to the fact that you become more comfortable with who you are, and have the freedom to surround yourself with a supportive community. But there are still going to be ignorant people, taunts, and laws that deny you your right to be who you are.

    3) We can’t help you.

    That’s bullshit. I know that we can’t march into every school in the country and declare it a safe zone, but this idea that “queer adults” cannot reach queer youth is crap. We are not some strange sect that needs permission to interact with heteros. We are already in the school system, in the administration, the classroom, cleaning the school toilets and making the school lunches. It’s true that I might not get the best reception if I ask to give a lecture on homophobia at a public High School, but that’s not the only way. Get creative, people. The It Gets Better movement is an example of a creative way to reach youth. There must be other ways to change school policies, to train teachers in combating heterosexism, and to educate youth about the affects of sexual-orientation based bullying.

    4) This is a Queer issue.

    How many people were completely secure about their sexualities in Middle School and High School? It’s not only the GLBTQ kids that get called names, it’s not just the queers that are negatively affected by heterosexism. When you’re always afraid of being called a fag, there’s very little space to develop confidence in your own sexuality, whatever that may be. I could write an entire paper about the far-reaching affects of heterosexism, but let’s just say that every school kid would be better off without it.

    ALSO it’s not just up to the GLBTQ community to fight heterosexism in schools. Everyone has a responsibility to make life better for youth. Not only that, everyone has the power to make life better. Just try.

    Okay, that’s mostly what I wanted to say. Thank you for reading this far. I’m not trying to belittle the important work that the It Gets Better movement is doing. But I hope that we can all really think about what it means that all we can tell a kid who’s getting tormented everyday is “In ten years that guy who called you a fag and threatened to kill you won’t even matter.”

    Here’s an interview with Savage about the It Gets Better movement:

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/showing-gay-teens-a-happy-future/?scp=1&sq=gay+teens&st=cse

    Here’s the actual youtube stream:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/itgetsbetterproject

    PS: The US Dept of Ed has now officially recognized October as LGBT month.

    PPS: I’m not sure who to tag in this business, so if I’ve tagged you, it’s because you’re an educator, youth worker, parent, member of the GLBTQ community, ally, or all of the above. I hope that people will start talking about proactive ways of making life better for queer kids today.”

    – Helen Marie Staab

  2. Zach Booz – Denver, CO

    “The US Dept of Ed has now officially recognized October as LGBT month.” … wouldn’t it be something if every month were simply equality month?

    I pledge to not just be more inclusive in my thoughts, actions, and words, but to seriously reflect on what it means to be an inclusive “ally” – not just today, not just during the month of October, but everyday. If for no other reason than to send a consistent message to our young people that intolerance will NOT prevail and that ignorance will NOT win, I will not back down from this cause, and I will not lose sight of equality.

  3. Josh Friedberg – Richmond, IN

    I am posting a link to an article to encourage those who are depressed or suicidal to seek help. I am being honest about how this world has made me internalize a lot of self-hatred that I am working actively to address. And I am singing a song I wrote to remind people on my campus, with a recent (non-LGBT-related, as far as I know) suicide, that we all have hope out there for us. And Friday, my campus’s newspaper and its website will publish a piece I wrote about inspirational music to help heal those in need. Hopefully I will be able to write something to distribute for other queer youth as well… perhaps I need to write another song to put online.

  4. Jamie, what a wonderful post. Thanks so much for posting. I am really enjoying reading your posts – this is a great venture for you. I am quite proud of you. Keep up the great work!

    Here is the link for my It Gets Better video in case you are interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0DB2P6Sqhw

    Very proud of you!

    Adam

  5. Karen Lowry Reed

    I’m a 54 year old woman who has stood for love and respect over and over and over again, because it’s the right thing to do.

    http://sewandsowlife.blogspot.com/2010/10/speaking-up.html

  6. Hey Jamie,

    It’s the first time I’ve looked at your blog. Thanks for keeping it.

    I used to feel self-righteous about having come out in high school, and I turned my nose up at those folks who hid behind a veneer of aggressive heterosexuality because they were confused. I’ve realized in recent years that I would almost certainly have done the same if I had any heterosexuality to fall back on. My homosexuality was completely clear to me; confusion was something I didn’t have to face.

    I think gay activists haven’t paid as much attention as they might to those kids who really are confused. Most school-age kids, I think, don’t consider bisexuality (or, for that matter, a more general pan-sexuality) to be an option.

    High school GSAs are a great start to changing oppressive school cultures, I think. One common criticism of my GSA was that it didn’t “do anything.” But it was the fact that the thing existed that was so important. Several years ago a younger friend of mine (a conservative, but a pretty decent fellow who knows I’m gay) complained, “That GSA of yours has gotten completely out of hand, Colin. We have gay couples making out in the hallways now!” I couldn’t have been happier to hear it. The GSA was not an activist group at all, but it’s mere presence thoroughly changed the culture of the school in its acceptance of GLBT folks.

    • Helen Marie Staab

      Jamie, thank you for taking the time to write this, and for your efforts in this area. I’m glad to have been a part of the inspiration for such a powerful movement.

      I mentioned this in my note, but I would like to reinforce the importance of the work that allies do in the struggle for gay rights. In a lot of cases, heterosexuals are able to use their privilege to be heard in spaces where homosexuals could not. I also believe that, in the end, everyone would benefit from the eradication of heterosexism. This is why I hope that people can begin to see this as more than just a queer issue.

      In further consideration of the It Gets Better movement, I think that a crucial piece that is missing is the space for youth to share their experiences of what they are going through right now. Because, no matter what life might be like in ten years, what is real to them now is having to get up every morning and face bigotry. We need to be listening to what they have to tell us more than telling them how they ought to conceptualize their suffering.

      I would love to hear ideas from you, and your readers, about how we can make youth part of the process of making it better now. It’s their lives that we are working for, and so in the end it should be them that we look to for guidance.

      • It has actually been kind of cool to see some of the youth-led movements in social media to get their voices out there on this issue. Though hijacked by bigots, the “Wear Purple” day, which has thousands of supporters on Facebook, is, from what I understand, a Queer-Youth-led demonstration.

        You are exactly right, though. There are not enough opportunities for youth to have their voices heard on this issue at all, and there are especially few opportunities for Queer youth. What ideas do you have, Helen?

        In my consulting, when a school has identified that they would like me to help them make their school a safer space, I start by talking to the kids. I ask for forums in which I can hear from students what they think needs to change. Though it can be hard for me to identify queer youth in school where I am not a member of the community, I try to get a sense for where the student body is hurting or where they see hope.

  7. […] show.  As this young man highlights and as I highlighted in my recent post entitled, “Let’s Make It Better Now,” bullying of LGBTQ students has reached epidemic proportions in this country.  There are […]

  8. […] need for an “It Gets Better” Campaign. It’s time we Make It Better in 2011. We cannot have another life […]

  9. […] While those may seem like pretty simple statements, when I stop to think, I realize that they are quite radical.  After all, most messages in the media, in politics, and in religious discourse say that if you are anything but Straight as an arrow, you should be ashamed.  Our schools are often horrible places for anyone who is not Straight.  An atmosphere of shame and bullying ends in the leading cause of death among Lesbian and Gay youth being suicide. […]

  10. […] Gaga understands that we currently face a culture and climate in the United States where it is just plain not safe to be young and gay.  While the number one cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. is an auto accident, the number […]

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