After a rash of suicides by gay (or perceived to be gay) teenagers made national news this fall, sex columnist Dan Savage responded with an online video, recorded with his husband, telling gay teens that "It Gets Better." Savage encouraged other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults to make videos about how they struggled as teens and howtheir lives improved. "Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids?" Savage asked. "We have the ability to talk directly to them right now." Thousands of people turned on their webcams and recorded responses.
Personal narratives are powerful, and the videos are compelling. I watched submissions from gay friends of mine and learned for the first time about their battles with depression. In a video that has been viewed more than 2 million times, Fort Worth City Council Member Joel Burns describes, at a Council meeting, the violence he endured as a teenager. In one of many submissions by celebrities, Project Runway's Tim Gunn confesses that he attempted suicide at age 17. Using the Internet to tell these stories is necessary, Savage has pointed out, because LGBT role models can be hard for kids to come by.
Though Savage's initial idea was for LGBT adults to speak directly to kids, soon straight people were recording and submitting "It Gets Better" videos, too. Many of them stick to the general subject of bullying rather than address the specific ways gender-nonconforming teens -- and, later, adults -- are the targets of violence and discrimination. In one such submission, Vinny Guadagnino, one of the stars of MTV's Jersey Shore, avers, "If there's anyone that I hate on, it's a bully." But given that he and other Jersey Shore cast members have mocked transgender people on the show, his definition of bullying clearly ends on graduation day.
In late October, Hillary Clinton posted her own "It Gets Better" video, and Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama followed suit. While I was happy to see them supporting the campaign, their submissions display an embarrassing lack of self-awareness. As top-level government officials, they are in a fundamentally different position than celebrities or everyday folks who have made "It Gets Better" videos. They have the power to change the policies that alienate LGBT people and relegate them to second-class citizenship.
Pelosi and Clinton seem to recognize this, and at least their videos acknowledge that anti-gay harassment isn't confined to school grounds. They each mention gay rights and discuss the struggles and successes of various marginalized groups in America. "There are so many opportunities for you to develop your talents and make your contributions," Clinton says, "And these opportunities will increase because the story of America is the story of people coming together to tear down barriers, stand up for rights, and insist on equality, not only for themselves but for all people."
Obama's "It Gets Better" video, on the other hand, is primarily an anti-bullying public service announcement -- about as politically risky as decrying people who kick puppies or steal old ladies' handbags. In a message directed toward kids who feel constantly threatened, Obama chooses the safe path. He tells gay teens to stay strong and that "there is a whole world waiting for you, filled with possibilities" -- which is true, unless they aspire to marriage, parenthood, or a career in military service. Indeed, within days of posting the president's "It Gets Better" video, the Obama administration announced it would be reinstating "don't ask, don't tell" after a recent court ruling that ordered the military to stop enforcing the policy. Obama may want things to get better for LGBT teens, but he is not working to ensure that they do.
While I'm sure it helps gay teens to know there are straight Americans who care about them, those of us who don't experience discrimination based on whom we love are in no position to assure kids that their lives will get better without pledging to make equality a reality. When straight people focus solely on schoolyard bullying without acknowledging that anti-gay bigotry is pervasive in the adult world, they're essentially making the "just wait it out" argument about gay rights: Demographics are on our side, so marriage equality and nondiscriminatory policies are inevitabilities. While that's certainly true -- America will no doubt be a better place for LGBT people once these teens have reached adulthood -- "It Gets Better" only works if it is a promise we keep, not just something we say into a webcam and then promptly forget about.
It's easy to hate high school bullies. It's a lot harder to change the culture that created them.