Saturday, September 25, 2010

It Gets Better

I normally don't venture very far off of life in the Foreign Service, particularly as an LGBT person, as a topic on this blog. I do occassionally discuss same-sex marriage because I am a person in a legal same-sex marriage and this is issue number 1 for me.

But I saw an article today from the NY Times that I really wanted to share with you. It is an interview with Dan Savage on his new project, called It Gets Better, which reaches out to teens being bullied in high school for their sexuality. Part of his hope is to stem the tide of gay teen suicides, because gay teens are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts.

I am not sharing this with you for sympathy but to make a point about how it gets better. I was one of those bullied kids. The worst for me was my freshman year at Lexington High School in South Carolina. I was bullied mercilessly. I was called "half male" in P.E. class. A group of particularly cruel students started a club about me, and even had t-shirts made.

I was in constant dread of school and I couldn't imagine things getting better. My parents kept a small gun at home for my mother in case something happened when my dad wasn't home. I went home each day and got the gun out and stared at it, praying for the courage to just end it all. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was the belief that I would go to hell for killing myself. It isn't something I believe now, but I'm glad believed it then.

Because it does get better. You can go on to be a happy, successful adult. I got a good education and am married to the love of my life. We have a good home, great jobs, and a great life. None of which would have happened if I had taken my life.

I plan to make a video for this project because I want to share that and maybe give some desperate teen a reason for hope. Because it does get better. The folks who say high school is the best time of your life are lying.

I hope you will share this article and link with any gay teens you know. And if you are a happy, healthy LGBT adult, I hope you will consider contributing to the project.

Thank Dan, for doing this.

Showing Gay Teenagers a Happy Future

A new online video channel is reaching out to teenagers who are bullied at school for being gay. The message: life really does get better after high school.

The YouTube channel, called the “It Gets Better Project,” was created by the Seattle advice columnist and activist Dan Savage. Mr. Savage says he was moved by the suicide of Billy Lucas, a Greensburg, Ind., high school student who was the target of slurs and bullying. The channel promises to be a collection of videos from adults in the gay community who share their own stories of surviving school bullying and moving on to build successful careers and happy home lives. The first video shows Mr. Savage with his partner of 16 years, Terry. The men tell their own stories of being bullied, finding each other and becoming parents. This week I spoke with Mr. Savage about the new channel and why he decided to reach out to teenagers. Here’s our conversation.

Q. Why did you decide to create a YouTube channel to talk to gay teenagers?

A. There was another suicide of a teenager, a kid who was being harassed for being gay. I put up a link to the story, and someone said in a comment that they wished they could have talked to the kid for five minutes to tell him it gets better. That’s always been my reaction too. I realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids. We can make an end run around the schools that don’t protect them, from parents who want to keep gay kids isolated and churches that tell them that they are sinful or disordered.

Q. Aren’t celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert already showing teenagers that it’s O.K. to be gay?

A. They see Ellen and Adam Lambert and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re good folks and important public figures, but those are gay celebrities. What are the odds of becoming a celebrity? What kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves. Becoming Ellen is like winning the lottery. But there are a lot of happy and content lesbians who we don’t see or hear from ever. Those are the people teens need to hear from right now. When a 15-year-old kills himself, he’s saying he can’t picture a future that is decent enough and happy enough to stick around for. Gay adults can show our present lives and help them picture a future.

Q. The video advice you offer kids is to just hang in there. Why aren’t you telling them that you can help them now?

A. We can’t help them. That’s what makes gay adults despair and feel so helpless when we hear these stories. We can’t barge into these schools. I get to go to colleges and speak, but high schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. I’ve read these stories for years. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.

Q. You’re an advice columnist who writes about other people’s issues. Was talking about your personal and family life difficult?

A. It made me more self-conscious. I don’t write about my life in my column. It was difficult. It’s going to be difficult for a lot of people. You can see people revisiting this part of their lives that they wanted to forget about. I don’t like to think about what school was like for me. It kills me when Terry talks about it because he suffered so much. The thing that was also difficult, we didn’t want to seem like we are bragging, but we wanted to talk about the things that are good and meaningful and give us joy, like going snowboarding or going to Paris. We don’t want to seem elitist. And we didn’t want to wallow in pain. We want to give kids hope for a future life that has pleasure and joy and family.

Q. How is the channel going to work?

A.We want people to post their own videos and send me a link. I can select them and add it to the page. The Web site is It’s going to be interesting to see what comes in. I don’t want it to be “lifestyles of the gay and fabulous.” What we want to say to kids is that if you don’t win the economic lottery, and most people don’t, you can have a good and decent and fun life that brings love.

Q. The first line of your video is, “High school was bad….” What kinds of things did you and your partner have to deal with in high school and middle school?

A. It was late grade school that was hard for me. I was really different, my head was in the clouds. I liked musicals. I didn’t make friends or hang out with people. Then I found theater. I got picked on a lot, even by teachers too. I liked to listen to musicals and bake, and my homeroom teacher found out and mocked me in front of the whole class for baking. I got beat up a couple of times in the schoolyard. It’s nothing compared to what Terry went through. He was beat up every day, stuffed into bathroom stalls. He could barely walk down the halls without being attacked. His parents went and spoke to the administrators and were told that they wouldn’t do anything so long as he insisted on acting the way he acted and walking the way he walked and talking the way he talked, and he was bringing it on himself.

Q. Would hearing from gay adults that your life eventually would get better have helped you back then?

A. It did help me. When I was in high school I got involved in the fringe theater scene in Chicago, and I met some openly gay people. I could see that it got better, that they were happy and loved and supported. I saw with my own eyes that it got better.

Q. Have you heard from any teenagers yet since posting the first video this week?

A. I’ve heard from bunches. I’ve gotten 3,000 e-mails in the first 24 hours. The ones that are really moving are the ones from straight kids who are telling me that they are e-mailing the link to their picked-on gay classmates and friends who need to see it.


Camille said...

They started a CLUB about you?!?! That's terrible. I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

Digger said...

I appreciate that. But it was a long long time ago, and living well is the best revenge! :)

Anonymous said...

I hate people who say that high school was the best time of their whole entire lives. When they say this, I think to myself "Wow, you must be wicked lame."

And, I hope those people who teased you get herpes. No, really. No one deserves to believe they should die for who they are.

sclawgrl said...

Uggh - I went to high school in the Carolinas in the 80s - I don't even want to think about it. Your experience was worse than mine, but you're right - living well is the best revenge. You are now living an extraordinary life in the FS during a time when it is possible, at least in some areas, to become legally married to the person you love. I look forward to the time when we look back on this era in gay rights history the same way we look back on segregation - kind of a "how was this ever acceptable to anyone" sort of feeling. It may take another twenty years, but we'll get there. Eventually.

Alix Bryant said...

Powerful post. Thanks for sharing. And you're right, I think you are getting your revenge right now with the amazing work you are doing!

Connie said...

What a wonderful post, and yes, it does get better. One change that gives me hope is, when I went to school (elementary through high school) the counselor was who you were sent to when it was already too late. It was worse than being sent to the principal. The school my kids attend, as well as the one prior, had counselors who were involved in the day to day activities of the kids. They are working to preempt bullying and other anti-social behavior. To give children coping tools when things are tough, and how to treat people as they want to be treated. True, I am talking about International schools, but these are American international schools. I can hope that this positive change is a trend. Not only does life get better as you leave high school and find your own life, but I think that there is hope that our schools are 'guiding' our children better now. (preventative, rather than repair mode)

Brandee said...

I saw this mentioned in Dan's column this past week. Thank you for sharing it, and your story, as well. It's very powerful stuff.

Erin G said...

love this project, I saw it in the times and from a few fb friends. Great idea, and I'm glad you'll be contributing.

I'm also from the Carolinas (grew up in NC but went to college at Furman) and in my university years I found myself being a (dissenting) "breeder" voice for the glbt community in a very conservative little bubble. I wish this project had existed then. Awesome, awesome idea. I hope it goes crazy far.

IT DOES GET BETTER. If you can feel better, even after people made a mean club about you (oh my dear word), then it can get better for anyone. Right?

Thanks for sharing this. :)

Digger said...

Glad you like the project and that you are passing it along, Erin. I'm glad you are enjoying the blog too, even if the parts you like are the language parts that make we want to pound my head against a wall! :)

By the way, I did the reverse of you: born in SC but went to school in NC (well, after I went to school in SC).

sclawgrl said...

I have to share this - and it mentions the project. I am distressed - there are no words.