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What if it Doesn’t Get Better?

October 9, 2010

If you’re hooked on facebook, youtube and the like chances are you’ve heard about the sudden rash of kids that have committed suicide because of the persecution they’ve had to endure at school due to their sexual orientation. First off, when I say “sudden” I’m being slightly facetious (just a little) because all though this has gotten a lot of media attention it’s not like it’s anything new. Teenagers have been offing themselves for years and queer kids (and when I say queer in this instance, I mean anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘norm’ whatever it happens to be any given day) have been bullied and teased and made all around miserable forever, or at least it seems that way. This whole thing has gotten a lot of media attention and youtube videos have popped up (something started by Dan Savage) under the campaign “It Gets Better” wherein people have been telling their own stories about how life gets better after high school. It’s true that high school is a notoriously bad time for lots of people and although the message of hope that the “It Gets Better” campaign is sending out to kids is a good things in of itself, there are still some inherent problems with the whole thing that just doesn’t sit right with a lot of people.

Quiet Riot Girl, for one, has been annoyed with Dan Savage all week. She’s written several posts about her annoyance and I gotta say, although I’m not familiar with the guy, she makes some good points or at least raises some interesting questions. Her post It Gets Better: What Does? For Whom? addresses some of the aforementioned problems that exist with the “It Gets Better Campaign”. I particualrly like this passage:

Many many young people are confused and isolated for many reasons. Their identity becomes bound up in sexuality and gender during adolescence, well, even earlier than that. And this can be very challenging. But to lump all that confusion, isolation, and yes, sometimes cruelty and bullying, together as affecting ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ young people, is misguided and misleading in my view. Associating teenage angst and alienation with a ‘deviant’ sexual identity, and expecting those teenagers to hold onto that sexual identity for the rest of their lives, I think, is just as much a problem as things like homophobia and bullying. Some ‘queer’ kids are so keen to avoid getting stuck with that deviant identity that they are the ones that act in a homophobic bullying way. Some people don’t experience same sex desire until adulthood. Some people sail through high school as a ‘normal’ ‘popular’ kid and then have a really shit time later on, partly because of who they happen to fall in love with*

*Raises Hand.

So to the sentiment of ‘it gets better’ I still ask  ’what does? and for whom?’ Not to be negative about people with diverse sexual experiences and identities,  and not to make such a song and dance about ‘privilege’. But to be open-minded about life, love and young people’s sense of who they are, and who they might be. And to resist this ever-encroaching culture of homogenity, whereby if someone who seems to have influence in liberal, socially-aware circles does something, the consensus has to be that it must be A Good Thing. Because it is campaigning against Bad Things. (Quiet Riot Girl)

In her blog post, Quiet Riot Girl, also points us to another blog article, by Femmephare over at Temps Contre Temps, that is well worth the read. It clearly identifies some of the key problems that can be found within the “It Gets Better” project.

It’s not enough to just tell someone it gets better (with time), you have to tell them how. Improving any kind of situation comes with change, comes with action. How did you make your life better? Tell me how. Maybe that won’t be the course of action that makes everyone’s life better, but it’s a start. It’s an option. Telling someone it gets better after high school, or that it gets better with time, implies a kind of non-action where all you have to do is wait it out before one day waking up happy. Fuck that, happy takes work. It also implies that there’s nothing we can do to improve the lives of those in high school, that they are shit out of luck, have to tough it out and magically upon graduation free themselves of all the preceding bullshit. Life doesn’t exactly work that way. Time, time, time, always telling someone it takes time and that with time all will get better, but what if it doesn’t? What if it takes me more time than it did you, does that mean there’s something wrong with me?

Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how. (Femmephare)

I (at the age of 29) can watch the “It Gets Better Video” and feel touched or moved or even entertained by their story (ies), but I don’t know that I would have had the same reaction as a teenager. When you find yourself in the middle of that turmoil the last thing you want to hear is another person trying to offer you “perspective” by telling you their problems. I reached out to a friend one day when I was on the verge of suicide and when all the pain was gushing out of me she countered everything I said with one of her problems. I told her “this isn’t a competition”, she said she was “offering me perspective”. I didn’t need perspective, I needed someone to listen. To see me.

And listening– way more listening. Because telling your personal story of adversity from a place of privilege, might have a lot of applications, might be asked of you perpetually, might seem alluring because it’s so often milked from us. But it’s not the way. Saying, “I know how you feel, because I used to feel that way, and let me tell you, I don’t feel that way anymore,” doesn’t help, it hurts. You’re dwelling in the present. Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future. (Femmephare)

I like telling stories and I like hearing other people’s stories and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Some might consider it a pretty passive form of activism, but storytelling is one hell of a good way to make others and yourself feel something, to make others (and yourself) understand something, but it’s always a good idea to ask yourself what that something is and what it’s motivated by. I’m not suggesting that “It Gets Better” is a bad campaign and that it should be stopped, but merely that there are things we should consider and questions we should ask and perspectives we should always take into account instead of jumping to the “consensus […] that it must be A Good Thing. Because it is campaigning against Bad Things.”

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2010 7:16 pm

    Not familiar with Dan Savage, of Savage Love fame? Study up!

    But seriously, I can see your point. Telling kids “It Gets Better” when they’re in high school and 4 years is forever, is ridiculous. No matter what your problems are in high school, you do NOT want to hear that these are “the best years of your life” or that “it’ll get better.” No one wants to deal with high school problems, even though they are critically important. Teenagers are confused, mocked, made to feel like their problems aren’t real, told to grow up while also told to shut up because they’re acting like children. Which they are. Or just were. Or are trying to grow out of.

    Telling them it gets better is a slap in the face. And I completely understand Dan’s point is to try to show them that suicide is not the answer, that living in a small town now is not necessarily the place you’re going to live out the rest of your years, but what about helping them NOW? What about calling on educators and administrators to stop the problems of bullying that he is so concerned with? Use your clout for that, Dan. Not for making videos sharing pain.

  2. October 9, 2010 7:45 pm

    @ Laura: Seriously, every time I’ve heard the name Dan Savage I would think “That Savage actor from the Wonder Years?” Also, as an aside, “Savage Love” is a brilliant name for an advice column. He should thank his parents for that last name every single time he cashes a paycheck.

    And I completely understand Dan’s point is to try to show them that suicide is not the answer, that living in a small town now is not necessarily the place you’re going to live out the rest of your years, but what about helping them NOW? What about calling on educators and administrators to stop the problems of bullying that he is so concerned with? Use your clout for that, Dan. Not for making videos sharing pain.

    Agreed! Not that sharing your pain is bad per se, there’s actually a lot of benefits to be had when it comes to unburdening yourself and sharing with others or commiserating with others, but when it comes to a true moment of crisis, and when you’re talking about someone who is seriously thinking of killing themselves that’s a true moment of crisis…sharing pain your pain with someone at that moment is pretty much anything but helpful. If anything it might actually make them feel worse. If I could add something to this “It Gets Better” campaign is that after sharing and emoting and telling others it gets better, how about giving your advice on how to make it better in the moment. We (parents, administrators, teachers, whomever) need ideas on how to help kids that are going through these things.

    Most of the thing we go through as teenagers are never dealt with. Not in a real way anyhow. We don’t learn how to make it better, we learn how to push all these things that hurt us aside.

  3. October 10, 2010 2:59 am

    Dear Olga
    Thank-you for sifting through all my crazy Savage-Hate (haha yes he should be very very grateful for that name every time he cashes a big fat pay check!) and making some sense and thoughtfulness out of it.

    I feel less crazy now I know other people have also been criticising the Savage Love school of Gay Hard Knocks…

    xx

  4. catherine permalink
    October 10, 2010 6:19 am

    I think the It Gets Better concept has a lot of good intentions but where it really falls short is that it doesn’t account for the fact that any period of transition can be difficult. The teenage years are notable mainly because it’s the first rough transition period we really experience in our lives and the hormonal upheaval is especially brutal. But it’s comparable to, say, a woman going through menopause, divorce, or growing out of your 20s.

    I think this is some pretty harsh criticism, although I haven’t really seen the videos. They sound a bit one-dimensional and really only focus on a certain teenage demographic, but I think it’s worthwhile to let teenagers know that most periods of pain don’t last forever. I say most mainly because there can be a more serious underlying depression or deeper issues to consider but it is true that most of life’s most difficult throes will pass.

    The “time heals all wounds” rhetoric is utterly useless to those in the healing the process. It’s heartbreakingly vague. I like that you point out how timing is never the same and it is a passive process, which can make one feel even more helpless.

    So what are the answers? What kind of outreach programs would you suggest?

    I have one more thought… and I’m not even sure how I feel about it. But sometimes there are some things in life we just have to go through and we won’t understand why it was so painful or why we had to go through it until its passed. Maybe a little pain is a good thing. Maybe we can’t always be happy all the time. (And no, I’m not referring to quietly pervasive and hideously unfair forms of discrimination, I just mean the kind of emotions we all went through at that age). My teenage years weren’t especially rough though, they were just your average angsty, hardcore music-filled, mild-rebellion, bad-fashion choice variety. My 20s however…

  5. October 10, 2010 2:52 pm

    @Brian, thanks for the link share. Good article.

    @Liz: I agree with you Liz, that most periods of pain don’t last forever (although they might seem like they do) and that it’s important for people to know that. I’m pretty sure the “It Gets Better” campaign is full of good intentions, and it actually a good place to start, because look at all the critical discussions it has spurred on.

    What’s the answer? I don’t know. There are probably a lot of answers. A lot of things need to change in our society. There are a lot of teenagers that go through high school barely making it out alive. There are a lot of things to deal with at that age and for the first time, you don’t feel like you can go to your parents or teachers for help. Forget telling someone (an adult) that someone is bullying the fuck out of you. That’s not going to help. At least, thats the message we get as teenagers. Talking to someone (parents, teacher, etc) about the issues we are facing is often unsafe. Depending on what the problem is, you run the risk of being punished or misunderstood, and more often than not parents are emotionally un-equipped to deal with pain in their kids. Imagine being a parent and your kid comes to you with all this pain, stuff that you went through yourself as a teenager, but that you still have to idea how to make better.

    One thing for sure, is that as a society we should value mental/emotional health professionals WAY more than we do. We need people working on prevention as well as how to deal with the aftermath. The pain and the consequences. We need to build the kind of culture that doesn’t de-value people based on looks, sexual orientation, etc, etc. We need to celebrate difference, and accept “variety” as the norm, and stop marginalizing people. We also need to think of ways to help the perpetuators of physical and emotional abuse. The kids that are bullying others are just as fucked up as the kids being bullied. You gotta ask yourself why they are acting the way that they are? What is inside them that they (or others) deem to be so wrong that they need to royally fuck someone else up to feel better. Where’s all this shame coming from? There’s so much about being a teenager that’s about repression. All these things and new emotions are surfacing and we repress the hell out of them. We’re full of deep, dark secrets that never see the light of day. Repression, shame and guilt. Wanting to fit it, but learning how to be an individual at the same time and dealing with, for the first time, an idea of self that’s wholly unstable.

    You know how we’re the only animals who are (self-aware) conscious of our own mortality (or so we say)? Well, puberty is probably the beginning of our (self)-consciousness about identity and the self. It’s like it scatters all over the place and we have to sort through all of it, and say world this is who I am. Only, we seem to forget that identity is fluid and we’re not given enough room to experiment or even change our minds.

    We need a different kind of education, a bigger emphasis on certain values, like love and acceptance and all that jazz. And mostly, we should always strife to create a space where people aren’t afraid (afraid to be rejected, abandoned, or ridiculed) to approach someone for help. Or something like that…

  6. January 25, 2011 7:18 pm

    My main issue with Dan Savage is that he is VERY transphobic, biphobic, misogynistic, and he threw a tantrum and claimed that African American voters in the state of CA were somehow all solely responsible for the passing of Prop 8.

    He excuses his biphobia and transphobia with BS excuses like “Aw, c’mon I’m a gay man so it’s somehow OK!” and he even used the “…but one of my best friends is Trans!” excuse.

    He’s not a sex “expert” at all and he talks out of his ass about bisexuality, trans/gender issues, and for those of you who have questions about BDSM and/or kink don’t go to Savage he’s completely vanilla and expects people to stay in the leather closet.

    Dan Savage should know. All it really takes is redirecting the bigotry you receive onto new targets:

    http://tigerbeatdown.blogspot.com/2008/11/profiles-in-douchery-dan-savage.html

    http://gudbuytjane.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/dan-savages-transphobia-back-again/

    http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=184947

    http://bifurious.wordpress.com/2009/03/27/its-definitely-time-to-find-a-new-sex-advice-columnist/

    Then again many gay men want to ignore/deny all of this about Savage and pretend that he’s not biphobic, transphobic, or misogynistic at all.

    See here: http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2011/01/dan-savage-lands-mtv-pilot.html

Trackbacks

  1. It Gets Louder… « Quiet Riot Girl
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