Just by taking a quick look at the headlines, it has been a brutal and heartbreaking few weeks for gay and lesbian teens in this country. There was the well-publicized death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge in New York City last month after his roommate outed him on the Internet. Before that, Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind. hanged himself after being taunted by classmates for being gay, and sadly, that is hardly the end of it. A countless number of gay and lesbian identified teens and preteens (along with those that are simply targeted as such) are mercilessly picked on at school, church, and even at home everyday. The two casualties mentioned above are just a few of the more tragic cases to make national news.
Bullying is a problem whether you are gay or straight, but bullying is far more common to be directed at gay and lesbian children than heterosexual children. Some say it is five to ten times more common. Whatever the figures may definitively be, it is undeniable that there is a huge, and life threatening, problem here. As if it weren’t potentially difficult enough for teens struggling with sexual identity to find a sense of peace and comfort with themselves, the specter of harassment and merciless judgment make it all the more of a living hell.
Because of this, Savage Love columnist Dan Savage took to the Internet with a provocative and bold campaign dubbed, “It Gets Better.” Framed as an open letter to beleaguered gay and lesbian teens, Savage and husband Terry Miller recorded a video message (see below) to share their experience and a general message of hope with those lacking it.
Others have followed suit (including some celebrities like Tim Gunn and Ellen DeGeneres), with messages of resolve, fortitude, and solidarity. The tone taken, is that of seasoned and wise adults who had too suffered through similar abuse and hostility during their teen years, only to come out (forgive the pun) stronger and more actualized than ever imagined. These are people that have found a community, gained acceptance (not just because some of them are celebrities) and made a life for themselves. They are decidedly not the “losers” nor “freaks” that a cruel and prejudicial high school community tried to convince them they were. In essence, these messages are put in place to afford these battered and disheartened children a long view that depicts possibilities and the prospect of hope.
But is it enough?
The short answer (achieved with a rhetorical question) is, how could it be? While I take no issue with Mr. Savage or his husband, and applaud both of them for sparking a valuable dialogue, the idea of suffering through years of hell in effort to find liberation on the other side, may just not be encouraging enough. As we know, for the teenage brain, it is often difficult (if not impossible) to conceptualize your life beyond your current hellish existence of high school alienation and persecution, no matter what a smart 40-year-old has to say about it (this is why guidance counselors sometimes fail miserably). A portion of the LGBT community has also taken issue with the campaign stating that the “It Gets Better” campaign misses the point and may encourage a form of passive endurance, rather than real change. This real change might have to come with a severe paradigm shift ; the sort of shift that makes intimidation, prejudice, and torment of these children totally unacceptable. This would not be about the patience and stamina of the tormented, but a sea change where the entire community became accountable for the well being of all their children, not just the seemingly “normal” and heterosexual ones.
There is a moment in Savage and Miller’s video where Miller talks about his personal suffering as a gay teenager in high school, which included being beat up, stuffed into bathroom stalls, etc. He remembers that his parents went in to speak to his high school administrators about the subject of Miller’s victimization, and the school officials responded to his parents concern with, “If you look that way, talk that way, walk that way, act that way, then there is nothing we could do to help your son.” Miller follows this memory with the sentiment that once he was out of high school, things got immensely better, which is great for him, but somewhat skirts the issue of responsibility.
Laying the blame upon the child, because they “look” or “act” a certain way, and the vindication of the adults and high school administrators, obviously compounds the problem. Even if you wrestle your way free of that anguish, and find acceptance in adulthood, the perpetual gauntlet of malice and intolerance is still very much in place, waiting for its next victims. The fact is, as wonderful and inspirational as Savage’s campaign might be, there is still the reality that each year spent as a miserably oppressed gay teenager feels like a lifetime. Is it enough to suggest this grin and bear it approach, or should we (as parents and mature adults) be emphatically and resolutely demanding much more from our schools, our community, and our children to insure the safety, happiness and well being of everyone?