Dan Savage recently launched the It Gets Better Project, a youtube testimonial campaign designed to remind queer teens that it gets better after high school. Savage and those joining the project attempt to address the uptick or at least an alarming concentration of teen suicides over their actual or perceived sexuality by reminding queer youth that high school ends and the bullying stops; you'll move to an urban gay enclave, meet the man of your dreams, and have a wonderful, sparkly, magical life. Maybe even get married, because, you know that's what all the other gays are doing.
I want to get one thing clear right out of the bat:
I think that the It Gets Better Project at its core is a good idea. Queer teens need to hear from their peers and their forebears that there is indeed hope. That life is indeed worthwhile and that high school is not, in fact, the end of the world.
What I question is this seeming meta-narrative that many in the gay mainstream are pushing: Get out of high school; flee your biggoted small town and move to an urban gay enclave; join the gay community as a card carrying member of the League of Fashionable Culture Generators; Enlightened, Accepting Queers versus Ignorant, Biggoted Straights; Urban versus Rural; Us versus Them.
It's this kind of self-congratulatory back-patting that the gay community is so want to do that I question: the notion that the gay community has it all figured out; that gay folk are so morally, culturally, and politically superior to the backwater, cousin-marrying, neanderthals of small town America; that once you leave high school and become a full member of the gay community, you will be accepted with open arms and you too will get to go out dancing every night and gossip about your latest fling over mimosas at Sunday brunch.
I fear that the way in which people are presenting the gay narrative to these impressionable teens is this sense that their lives will inevitably improve. That's just not true. They can get better, definitely. But we have to be real and transparent about the gay community and its problems.
It sure is easy for Dan Savage to talk about how wonderful his life turned out, because hey... it kind of did. Lucrative book and advice column deals under his belt, a legion of faithful fans, and a wicked hot husband, to boot. Am I criticizing Dan for his charmed life? Absolutely not. Congratulations are in order. He achieved the highly unlikely. I'm genuinely really, really happy for him. He deserves it. We all deserve a great life.
But the fact of the matter is that not everyone gets it. Yes, that's right... even if you're gay and have endured all kinds of unspeakable wrongs, the magical vending machine in the sky called karma doesn't actually keep a running balance of good things owed to you. You have to fight for it. Things don't always work out. They can, but you have to fight for it. You have to know what you want and be willing to fight tooth and nail for it.
For example, I had a typically unfortunate gay experience growing up. I was teased through middle and high school for being gay. I angsted over the conflict between my faith and my sexuality. I was terrified of what my conservative Christian family would do if they discovered my queerness. I suppressed my sexuality, my emotions, my struggles. I contemplated suicide, or rather I contemplated the possibility of never being born (because suicide was a sin... see how screwed up I was?). And part of what brought me out of my self-imposed death spiral and helped me come out was, in fact, Dan Savage and his advice columns. Or at least him and the promise of urban gay nirvana I was promised through shows like Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
I kept telling myself that mantra which Dan is now preaching: It Gets Better. It Gets Better. Did it get better? Yes and no. My college experience was actually probably worse than high school, at least on the homophobia front. In high school I only got the teasing, name calling, and rumors behind my back; but college brought me in intimate familiarity with harassment, threats to life, physical violence, same-sex rape and institutional dispassion for my situation.
And so I reasoned that of course college didn't bring the gay nirvana I was promised. I went to a small liberal arts college in the South. What could I expect? So my spare time and summers were spent interning at queer organizations, becoming deeply involved in queer politics at school, etc. I majored in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, I interned with the Human Rights Campaign-- I was building my life towards that gay promise... but only to find that the gay community is not perfect and has its own problems.
The gay community's problems surrounding race and gender became abundantly evident to me as queer men of color, especially feminine queer men of color get pushed to the fringes of gay life. I was shocked by the openly racist comments that were slung by gay activists against the African American community over a perceived bias which allegedly led to the passage of Proposition 8 (this has been disproved, just for the record). Even today, in the aftermath of Tyler Clementi's tragic death, I have been shocked by anti-Asian and anti-South-Asian comments and insinuations on how Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei's Asian background could have contributed to the tragic circumstances. I've documented on Bilerico my very personal struggle with the gay community, its sexual racism, and its effects both personally and sociologically.
The gay promise failed me. I went from being ostracized by my straight classmates in high school to being ostracized by many white gay men in an urban gay enclave.
Cry me a river, Amy Tan.
And what has given me hope? I came to find a queer Asian community service organization that allowed me to find a safe space to commune with, network, befriend, and organize with other queer Asian men. It has become clear to me that the gay promise which Dan Savage espouses only applies to some people. And that if it doesn't apply to you, you have to make your own space.
So what are the takeaways from all this?
Yes, the It Gets Better Project is a great thing. We need to be reaching out to queer youth to instill in them a sense of hope and knowledge that "there is a place for us," to quote Dan Savage's West Side Story reference. But we also have to be aware and critical of the very real problems and deficiencies the current gay community has in its inability to make that gay promise accessible to everyone who falls under the rainbow banner.
So does it get better?