Public figures and private citizens of all stripes are joining a movement to tell gay teens suffering from bullying in school or struggling with their identity that “it gets better.” The campaign, simply dubbed the It Gets Better Project, was launched by columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage in the wake of a recent string of teenage suicides across the country which have gotten a surprising amount of mainstream media attention.
But does it really get better? It certainly can, and it most likely will, in a multitude of ways, for most young gays growing up today…if, like the campaign says, they would just live to see it. Cultural change often happens fast, even if it seems unbearably slow; I graduated from high school just a year and a half before the premiere of the first network sitcom with an openly gay male lead character (whose name was in the title, no less!) and just months before my school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance was started. The experience of being a gay teen was measurably different between the time I attended my high school and the years that followed soon after.
But my question is mostly directed to the supposed “adults” in the room. One of the more visible people who have taken part in the It Gets Better campaign is Mario Lavandeira, better known to Internet gossip hounds as “Perez Hilton.” His message is one that’s hard to swallow coming from someone who, as an adult, is a glorified bully, publicly outing celebrities on his blog and scrawling “gay” across the faces of those who won’t kiss his ass. He now claims he’ll stop the bullying, but the point remains the same: Ours is a culture of bullying and bigotry, whether it’s tabloid journalism or mainstream politicking.
There are politicians running for office in the midterm elections this year who have publicly declared that gay pride parades are “disgusting,” that gays can be “cured,” and that openly gay men and women should not be allowed to teach in our schools. Despite progress to end the ban, the U.S. Military still doesn’t allow openly gay members to serve, and gay marriage is illegal in most states in the union.
Connections between these policies and the culture of intolerance in our schools have already been pointed out in recent weeks, but it bears repeating—ad nauseam—until those policies are ended. And organized religion also bears culpability. In response to a Christian reader who was offended by his assertion that people of faith are partly responsible for anti-gay bullying, Dan Savage answered bluntly: “[M]any of your children—having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry—feel justified in physically abusing the LGBT children they encounter in their schools.” (I urge everyone to read his entire response.)
Gay teens aren’t killing themselves because being a “gay teen” in America isn’t easy. They’re killing themselves because being gay in America isn’t easy. Justin Aeberg, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, and the countless others whose stories we haven’t heard yet had plenty to live for. But despite brave testimonials like the one shared this week by Forth Worth, TX city councilman Joel Burns, who is married to his husband and who has ostensibly been accepted by his 67-year-old “tough-cowboy”-of-a-dad, things getting better isn’t guaranteed to everyone—or anyone.
In New York City, one of the safest cities in the country for gays, three separate alleged hate crimes against adult gay men were reported over the course of just a few days earlier this month. October also marks the 12th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder. These are stark reminders that violence against gays isn’t simply a teenage epidemic.
When we’ve created an environment in which discrimination, bigotry, and violence are accepted, how can we expect our children not to follow suit in our schools and in our streets? It Gets Better is a beautiful campaign, and a necessary one, but it’s one that can only work in conjunction with real, fundamental change: change in our schools; change in our churches, synagogues, and mosques; and change in our government. To the president, I say: You claim you want to see an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but you refuse to do it by executive order out of some pass-the-buck ideal that the body that legislated it should also be the one to repeal it. But I say that all three branches of government are equal. It’s clear where the judicial branch is coming down on the issue, but your Department of Justice insists on appealing those decisions—partly made possible by gay Republicans, to boot—for that same idealistic reason.
If we truly want to help save the lives of not just gay teens, but gay Americans of all ages, we need to stop state-sanctioned bigotry immediately. It’s not enough to simply tell gay kids that it gets better. We have to prove it.