This anti-"It Gets Better" essay is making the rounds—a friend sent it to me with the cryptic note "interesting." It's definitely interesting, though it could ironically drive a few of you to suicide. But while it raises a couple of valid points, it also strikes me as intellectualized to the point of being utterly dispassionate. I'm not sure how reading this essay would be more helpful to kids facing bullying than listening to/watching Dan Savage's video project would be, nor do I think any (highly) arguably negative underlying messages in Dan's video could outweigh its explicitly stated positive message.
Read the essay and let me know what you think. After the jump, my reactions...
1. "The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment." This point is true. Dan and his partner say that small towns are more bigoted than big cities and that religion is bigoted. But are they wrong? I don't think their generalizations mean that every resident of every rural area and every religious person is more bigoted, but I do think the essayist's own point later on about how some people can't safely be out undermines the argument on behalf of small towns. And most religions—the big ones, the ones that drive U.S. culture—are explicitly homophobic. Luckily, not all religious people follow their holy books word for word.
2. "The message is wrong." The essayist points out that sometimes things don't get better. That's true. But when someone is dying of cancer, even if he or she knows his or her fate and even if you've discussed it rationally, is it wrong to hug that person and say, "It's going to be okay"? And similarly, if a gay kid is being tormented, is it wrong to say, "It gets better," especially considering the fact that in most cases things really do improve for kids who are having lousy childhoods? How many times do we hear people joke about never wanting to revisit high school? I can't imagine the benefit of telling a gay kid, "Things might get better for you later on, but things could stay the same, or—let's be real—could even get worse."
3. "Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing—to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing—is a violent reassignment of guilt." This is laughable. Violently laughable. We're talking about kids considering suicide, and the writer thinks that the "reassignment of guilt"—if that's even what this is about—is "violent"? No, violent is hanging yourself. This is the kind of writer who probably refers to unpleasant words as "rape," too. The writer thinks it's "ageist garbage" to tell kids they're depriving themselves if they don't survive their teen years. Is it really ageist to say life improves as you age? It also argues that kids are being pre-blamed for not having the guts to make it to the promised land, but isn't it really just an extension of hope, an encouragement to continue living? Note to essayist: Stay away from romcoms.
4. "Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth." This is where the essay jumps the shark entirely, apologizing to the creature for subjugating it by such an action. The writer actually believes gay kids contemplating suicide should not be told that "hurt will be fixed" because it "suggests that folks shouldn't actually inhabit their own suffering." I take the next point much better—that it may not matter to someone that his or her mom might come around if she hates his or her guts in that moment. But should we really be encouraging suicidal kids, "Inhabit your own suffering"? It's like emotional Christian Science. True enough, some moms never do come around. But I think that is not something we need to point out—not because it's depressing, but because kids already know that. That's why they're upset in the first place.
5. "The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out—even when coming out isn't a safe idea." True enough that some people have terrible family situations and couldn't safely be out of the closet, at least not at a young age. But I don't think that telling a gay kid his mom might eventually decide she doesn't hate him is an explicit or implicit encouragement to come out of the closet under unsafe conditions.
6. "Bar story: vomit." The writer loathes the fact that Savage met his partner in a bar and doesn't like the idea that kids are being given the message that safe queer space might include an alcohol-serving, 21-and-over-only establishment. Sounds like she's arguing that Dan's reality is a bad example, but this contradicts an essay by someone whose essay fetishizes being realistic (don't tell someone who's hurting that it might get better when it might not). Is it ideal to tell kids a gay bar might be their first (or only) safe place to be around and meet other gay people? Maybe not. But that might be reality for some, especially the ones too afraid to come out to their families after reading an essay arguing that their mommies might not love them again after all. Alcoholism is bad, but bars are responsible for a huge part of the gay movement in this country. So was World War II. Deal with it.
7. "We shouldn't be talking, we should be listening." Telling our own stories somehow devalues the stories of gay youth? I reject that. When I was a gay kid, I was starving for any gay stories. It didn't matter to me if the stories were from the "incredibly privileged"—I just wanted to hear various stories about being gay. I thought Truman Capote's life sounded amazing until I didn't. But I still am richer for having heard about it and decided that. And while I take her point that it's important to listen to what gay youth have to say, isn't part of the problem that they're not talking? They're afraid because they don't see enough outreach. Talking to them and telling our stories is just a way of opening communication. And we can't listen to them unless we know them and are a part of their lives. But we can reach out via YouTube or blogging and tell our stories. It doesn't "overwrite" them, it's just an overture to let them know we exist and we care. So #7 is half wrong: We should be talking AND we should be listening.
8. "Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you." This point is almost identical to points previously made, especially #4. I don't see how success stories "undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids' lives." The kids aren't complaining about the good times, they're complaining about the bad.
9. "There is actually no path to change in this vision." This one makes sense to me; her point is that hope is overrated and change is undervalued. It's unfortunate that she bitterly decides that "It Gets Better" is about "privileged folks" (it's typed as if it's been spat!) telling gay kids to just wait for happiness to occur without helping them in concrete ways, but I don't think anyone participating in "It Gets Better" is barred from doing concrete things as well—donating to the Trevor Project, volunteering for it, running for office with gay issues as a campaign platform, etc., the list goes on and on.
10. "Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF?" Now the writer is just openly resentful of "rich kids" and "classist, privileged gay folks." So Savage, through his hard work, winds up well off. So what? How does his having money belittle his story? "Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn't reassure them—it homogenizes their experience." I disagree with that. If something unexpected happens that is alarming, how is it ever not reassuring to be told, "This is normal"? That's what you want to hear.
11. "When we treat campaigns like this like they're revolutionary, they undermine all that really amazing work that the youth already does for itself." I don't think anyone is saying what Savage did is "revolutionary," it's just massively popular because it's striking a chord. And why is that a bad thing? (Well, the essayist has 10 or 13 responses to that question.)
12. "Campaigns like this lump everyone together." No, anti-gay bullies lump all gays together. Once lumped together, they are united as a group with a single, overarching issue: "I am being tormented for being gay." Addressing that singular issue in no way overlooks or invalidates all the other issues a kid might have. There is no way to address the multi-faceted issues of any one person except in a one-on-one way. And in the case of a gay kid, how does the author propose that would ever happen?
13. "Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting." Wrote the blogger. Eyeroll.
I think what really strikes me as bogus about the essay is summed up in the follow-up post, which I found when I realized this thoughtful, lengthy, controversial piece had received only one comment ("thunderous, heartfelt, applause"—I almost question its validity as weird comma usage characterizes the piece itself!):
"Over the last three days, thousands of people have clicked to read my piece. Hundreds have left comments. I read and am appreciative of all of them. I encourage you to keep writing, although I won’t be posting comments on my blog.
"The Internet is a crazy thing. Had I known, so many people were going to read and re-post my article, I might have organized my work differently. That said, I stand by all of my points. And I am glad about all the different conversations they have fostered.
"I wrote my piece as a response to the way that Dan and Terry’s video went viral so quickly. I was thinking about 1) why it was that THAT video was so popular and liked and 2) why the video made me and many of my friends uncomfortable. Also, I wanted to know whether those questions were related. Did it seem so painful because it was so popular? I am not capable of, nor would I want to, destroy Dan and Terry’s message. There are a multitude of ways to be queer. Dan’s isn’t the only voice… and neither is mine.
"Instead, I want to complicate the dialogue."
Complicating the dialogue is not what is needed when kids are dying, sometimes by their own hand. And the writer has no right to pretend this is a dialogue when she won't even post comments on her blog. Savage allows comments on his YouTube post, even from people who think he's a pedophile. That's a dialogue.
To me, this essay already seemed cartoonishly overintellectualized and bloodless, yet it's also embittered that Savage and his partner are rich, white gay males. I totally get that someone who isn't any of those things would be overwhelmed by seeing all of those things in the media over and over. I'm some of those things and even I see it. Trying to correct racial disparity in the gay media and in the media in general is certainly worthwhile. (And doubly provocative considering Savage's savage "no more Mr. Nice Guy" comments following the passage of Prop 8 in 2008.)
But in this case—is the fault with a racist, classist, oppressive media? Savage and his partner took it upon themselves to make this grassroots video outreach. It could just as easily have been spearheaded by not so rich, not so white not so males.
But it wasn't—although now that it's gone viral, the other "It Gets Better" videos are completely diverse.
So the final smell-test for the anti-"It Gets Better" essay is asking: Who's doing more damage, who's doing more good...and who's doing nothing but pondering the implications of it all?