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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.