It Gets Better Project raises awareness, draws critiques

Rachel Alexander

Queer kids growing up in the United States right now are living through “the best of times and the worst of times” according to visiting speaker Dan Savage. Although same-sex couples are gaining rights and awareness across the nation, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) individuals still face discrimination and lack the same rights as their straight counterparts.

Dan Savage during his interview with Whitman Pioneer’s News Co-Editor, Rachel Alexander. Photo Credit: Marie von Hafften

Savage is an advocate for LGBT rights, as well as a nationally-syndicated sex advice columnist. In his question-and-answer session on Wednesday, April 27, Savage addressed the pervasiveness of suicide among LGBT youth, much of which is caused by bullying experiences in school and at home.

“You can bully a child out of being, not being gay,” he said, in reference to the large number of conservative Christian families who try to “reform” their gay children rather than accept them for who they are.

After a series of gay and gender nonconforming teenagers killed themselves this past fall, Savage was inspired to start the It Gets Better Project. The goal of the project is to reach out to LGBT youth who are being bullied and show them that they can lead happy, fulfilling lives as gay adults. Savage and his husband uploaded the first It Gets Better video to YouTube in September 2010, and the project now has over 10,000 video contributions from LGBT adults, youth and their allies across the country.

Savage sees It Gets Better as a way of reaching youth who would otherwise be prohibited by parents from speaking to gay adults.

“We’re going to talk to your kids whether you like it or not,” he said.

In spite of the popularity of the project, it has received some criticism. Some LGBT advocates feel that “it gets better” is too passive of a message to give youth who are suffering.

“Things maybe will get better, but you deserve to have things better now,” said senior Liam Mina, president of Whitman’s Coalition Against Homophobia.

Savage agreed that policy changes are important in the long run, but said that expecting young people to change their own circumstances is often unrealistic.

“It’s really unhelpful to a lot of queer kids to ignore the particular circumstance they’re in and badger them, bully them, blame them by saying, ‘You haven’t done enough to change your circumstance,'” he said.

For kids in a situation where they don’t have agency to make changes, Savage said that a simple message of hope : life will get better : is important.

A group of four Whitman students, along with Assistant Professor of Politics Susanne Beechey, are presenting a critical analysis of the It Gets Better Project. The group watched videos submitted during the first month of the project and analyzed the demographics of contributors, as well as the messages being offered. Their presentation will take place on Thursday, April 28 at 5 p.m. in Olin 157.

Beechey pointed out the LGBT suicide is not a new phenomenon, even if the attention surrounding it is.

“It’s worth noting that [queer suicide] became visible when you had a series of white gay teens committing suicide,” she said. “This is a problem that we’ve known about it for a long time.”

One of the findings of the group was that a large number of contributors were white gay men. Junior Mehera Nori, who participated in the analysis, said that this demographic reflects the larger queer movement.

“People who have privilege and power tend to be white, gay men,” she said.

Another issue brought up by the group was the relevancy of some video contributions to queer youth. Many It Gets Better videos have been submitted by celebrities and politicians whose experiences may not be representative. Beechey and Savage both agreed that political figures need to be pushed to  make policy changes on LGBT issues.

“[President Obama] has the power to make it better, to not just offer hope but offer change,” said Savage. He nevertheless acknowledged that President Obama’s It Gets Better video had a very powerful message.

“The President of the United States looked into a camera, looked into the eyes of gay kids and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ I thought his video was very heartfelt and real,” he said.

Savage said he has been inspired by the number of LGBT youth who have contacted him to say that the videos gave them hope. Ultimately, he believes that the diversity of contributions to the project shows the strength behind a seemingly simple message.

“There are videos by wealthy people and famous people and poor people and people you’ve never heard of,” he said. “All of them are saying the same thing: it gets better.”