26 June 2011

It Gets Better

Last fall, in response to a rash of teen suicides, the newspaper sex-columnist Dan Savage launched “It Gets Better,” a project in which grownups posted videos on YouTube to send messages of hope to gay teens and others. “It Gets Better” grew to encompass hundreds of such messages, and has now been adapted as a book — but on this Pride Day in New York City, what seems most remarkable is that the message seems to be turning out honest and true. There are still hurdles to overcome, but just in the past months, circumstances have improved immensely, culminating in Friday’s vote in the New York State Senate to legalize marriage equality.

Because this day is meant not only for partying, I’d like to take a minute to run down a few of the optimistic signs on the social and political horizon in the United States.

Standing up to Bullying
Savage started the “It Gets Better” project because so many gay teens had been so brutally harassed that, despairing, they took their own lives. Most of those who posted YouTube videos had been bullied as kids, and they sought to show today’s children that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there, the speakers said, and you’ll be able to move out, move away, grow taller and stronger, make money, find acceptance, find love, and create new families.

This message resonated especially for me, because it reflects my personal experience — and yet I didn’t write about it here when Savage launched “It Gets Better.” In junior high school, I was bullied on a daily basis. I was teased, tripped, shoved, punched, slapped, spat upon, and insulted. And though I hardly knew myself what my sexual orientation was, the other boys had made up their minds: they called me “faggot.”

I dreaded going to school each day — above all, I dreaded going to P.E. class, where I was at my most vulnerable (to attack not only from other boys but also from the coaches). No one in authority — not the school administrators, not the other teachers, not my parents — did a thing to protect or defend me, or my brother, or the handful of other boys who suffered similar treatment.

Seth Walsh, 13 years old, committed suicide last September.

If I haven’t talked about this — and I haven’t much, anywhere — it’s not least because my history reflects poorly on my parents, whom I love. But there’s also a level of shame involved, and such experiences aren’t something we discuss even among ourselves. Was Feldstein bullied? I don’t know. Does he know about my trials? I don’t know. As victims, we sometimes persuade ourselves that we deserve rough treatment — I certainly told myself that I deserved it — and that’s one reason bullying leaves such lasting scars, and must be opposed.

Apparently I lacked the sort of imagination that leads a kid to kill himself. That’s not to say that I bore the slurs lightly. Unfortunately, I also lacked the nerve to fight back. But I held out the hope of a happier future, and as soon as I was able, I went looking for it.

And I found it. I found dozens — hundreds — of men and women who’d survived similar treatment. Some of us were wounded more deeply than others, but we have nursed each other with respect and affection. Together we joined and created communities, institutions, couples, and families that sustain us even now. It gets better — and it’s still getting better.

Ryan McGinnis and Mark Indelicato on Ugly Betty, 2010

Marriage equality got a big boost on Friday night, thanks to New York’s state legislators and Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who staked his political capital on this issue and who now makes other politicians (notably our President) look wishy-washy at best. But the issue is far from settled, and a minority of Americans are still deeply and sincerely opposed not only to marriage equality but to a host of other rights for their fellow citizens. It gets better, but it ain’t over.

We’ve made notable inroads, however, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the well-intended (really) but ultimately destructive Clinton compromise that ruined careers and lives, and sapped this country’s military strength. (How many Arab translators could the U.S. afford to lose?) The repeal has yet to go into effect, but the longer we wait, the more DADT seems like ancient history.

Signed, sealed, but not yet delivered

Perhaps most importantly, the legal weaknesses of the opposition’s arguments (based exclusively on religion or revulsion or both, none of which has standing) and the personal hypocrisies of its spokespeople are becoming more and more inescapably apparent. Bullies exist, and even thrive, far from the playground, but we are seeing them as such. When the state of Tennessee bans the use of the word “gay” in teachers’ lessons in its public schools, you get a sense of just how terrified and helpless the opposition is. Over the long term, that kind of hysteria can’t prevail.

At the same time, younger generations of Americans are becoming more and more accepting — even embracing — of their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors. This in itself is a political victory, a confirmation of Harvey Milk’s declaration that “They can’t hate us if they know us” and the result of the coming-out stories of a couple of generations of Americans. We’re not perverts or monsters, and more and more of our fellow citizens know that, and support us.

It’s just a matter of time before greater change arrives, and the wait will be shorter for those who are just arriving — such as the teens to whom “It Gets Better” is addressed.

The Media
It remains to be seen how powerful an agent of change is represented by positive images of GLBT Americans in the media — but those images are multiplying and prominent. Kurt Hummel, the gay kid on Glee, is one of the most popular TV characters today, and he’s played by an out actor, Chris Colfer. That’s heartening, but it would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. A broad audience is witnessing Kurt’s struggles and triumphs, which chime with those of thousands of other American kids.

Darren Criss and Chris Colfer in Glee

Our stories are being told now, and even straight performers are telling them. Actors like James Franco and Darren Criss have no hang-ups about playing gay characters, reality shows could hardly exist without gay participants, and Lady Gaga has stepped boldly up to the vanguard where Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna once fought — not only artistically but also politically.

I didn’t have the benefit of such images when I was growing up. The most sympathetic portrayal of a gay man I saw as a teen was John Hurt’s tour-de-force performance as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, the true-life story of a man who remained true to himself even as he was brutalized, marginalized, and unloved. Was that the best I could hope for? I wondered — then promptly told myself I’d never need to find out, because, after all, I was straight.

John Hurt returned to the role of Quentin Crisp in 2009.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in popular culture. Gay panic still dominates most mainstream comedies, and thoughtless rappers and comics still congratulate themselves on “pushing the envelope” when they’re inciting violence. A lot of Hollywood is still directing its energies toward 14-year-old boys — straight ones. (And rather oafish ones at that.) But the range of representation has expanded, and it’s not only gay kids who are watching.

Why We Fight On
Plenty of Americans still believe that the institution of heterosexual marriage is so flimsy that it will be threatened by gay marriages. Many believe that the Constitution is an apt vehicle for what amounts to Christian sharia. Many believe that we’re promiscuous, marginal, and corrupt — and therefore ineligible for the stability and socializing benefits of marriage. Marriage is only one area in which civil rights are denied to GLBT Americans; we are still second-class citizens everywhere in this country, to whom equal protection under the law is denied.

It gets better — but it hasn’t gotten great. Not yet.

We will go out and party today, and late into the night. We will march and also dance in the streets, and we will applaud the New York legislature and the go-go boys with enthusiasm. We will kiss and grope each other and wear outrageous outfits and play loud music — we will irritate more than a few straights. But we will push our babies in strollers, too, and walk beside our parents. We will cheer the politicians who act in our interest, and we will comfort our sick and mourn our dead.

We will celebrate, and speechify. We will call ourselves “we,” even when we have little in common. We will be proud, if only because pride is the opposite of shame — and we will not be ashamed.


susan said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and hope.

Maureen said...


Anonymous said...

Well said!!!