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Unexpectedly Personal, or it does get better

My initial reaction to the rather breathtaking endeavor known as It Gets Better was, well, complicated. Dan Savage is a very successful person on his own terms, and as such he makes a great role model, but that in itself makes it (to my thinking) difficult to see his video having the desired effect.

That is, if you are a gay teenager at the point of suicide—you are depressed and brutalized, you have internalized the bullying and verbal abuse and the contempt of your classmates, family, congregation, community to the point of picking up a gun or a bottle or a rope—if you are at that point, the reaction to Mr. Savage’s video would be that sure, it gets better for Dan Savage, but not for me. You may be able to see how other people could survive the hell you are going through, and see how it got better, but that only emphasizes your own weakness—and how little you deserve to survive to see it get better. Dan Savage is just somebody else that you have let down.

Not that I mean to disparage Mr. Savage, who is Doing the Right Thing, whether I expect it to actually work. And I have my own reasons for expecting a thing like that not to work.

Would it surprise any Gentle Reader to know that YHB had a column in his high school paper? Senior year, 1986-1987, I was Your Humble Columnist for the Ram Page, the newspaper of the Horrible High School Rams. I wrote about whatever struck my fancy, mostly politics (ooh, a seventeen-year-old socialist in a right-wing town, I must have been so popular) but also odds and ends of whatever came to mind. For my last column that Spring, I wrote about my suicide attempt a couple of years previous, and told my classmates that it gets better. I think I wrote it in those words, but of course my memory of that column is colored by current events; I don’t have the actual column to hand. It kicked up a tiny fuss—I think of it now as having in a sense come out, although I don’t think it was a secret before that. But I suppose it was the first time somebody had written about it in the school paper, and it was considered important and brave by the sorts of high school teachers who bother to read that sort of thing. In point of fact, I had already been accepted into college (this was it getting better) and had one foot out the door, well, a foot, a leg, an arm and shoulder, my head and most of my torso out the door by the time it was printed, so there wasn’t much bravery involved. But I did write it, because I did experience it: I felt hopeless and wanted to end it, and then, not two years later, I felt great. And teen suicide was not uncommon, you know, even back in the eighties, even for straight people, and I wanted to make sure (in my very young conception of sure-making, because sure-making is one of those things about youth) that everybody knew that it gets better.

Three months later, when I was in a dorm at Swarthmore, I heard that a young woman I knew, quite popular (I remember her as being her class president, although that is also likely a corrupt memory—I don’t even remember her name, for crying out loud) and pretty and good grades and all, killed herself the week before starting her senior year at my high school.

Of course, she had read my column, and she still died. So my reaction to Mr. Savage’s note is, well, that kids will still die.

But here’s the thing—it turns out that Mr. Savage’s note and the notes of other celebrities are just the sparks. The thing about the It Gets Better project is that there are hundreds of such videos. Hundreds. of. Videos. There’s a sixty-year-old gym teacher and there’s a baby butch in a college dorm and there’s the mayor of somewhere and there’s the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and there’s some middle-aged guy from Canada with dorky glasses and there’s a cheerful woman and her sullen wife, and there’s probably an unemployed construction worker who just got dumped by his boyfriend and he is telling you it got better. And if it gets better for him, maybe it will get better for you.

Except that really, kids will still die. I still think that if you are at the point of suicide, even this overwhelming breadth of experience is not likely to pull you through. I mean, I do like to think of some poor sap clutching the bottle of analgesics with which he plans to make his final exit, but he got a link to one of the videos and he got caught up in going from video to video, hundreds of them, until he falls asleep in front of the screen, the bottle still unopened, and in the morning, things look different (and they do tend to look different in mornings, even while he dreads getting on that bus). But I don’t, I’m afraid, believe that a lot of people at that point are getting links to those videos sent to them. Or, if they saw those videos, that they are going to lift the depression.

And yet.

I do think that somewhere somebody is seeing those videos who has not yet got to that point, who perhaps is only starting to be ostracized, or has not yet been beaten up, somewhere somebody who had a supporting community in high school but lacks one in college, some nine-year-old who finds herself doubting that the boy talk that is going around fourth grade is for her, somewhere some kid will see this stuff before it all starts. And when the bullying and teasing starts, there is the chance that somebody, somewhere will recognize that this is just the same old shit that gets worse and then gets better, and not ever get to be the person these videos are ostensibly aimed at. Which would be even better.

And, as another benefit, there’s the possibility that some heterosexual kid will see these things and not join in when the bullying starts, that some jock somewhere will see some jock somewhere saying that he was almost driven to suicide before it got better and will have second or third thoughts, that maybe somewhere somebody will be left alone on the school bus because, well, it doesn’t seem funny anymore.

Like a lot of persuasion, this sort of thing only seems to be aimed at its declared audience—and, perhaps, its declared audience is the audience least likely to be persuaded. That’s always hard for me to remember. Even harder is the idea—which I have to tell you never even occurred to me until today, twenty-odd years later, and makes the whole incident easier to hold in my memory—that even though that poor kid wasn’t saved by a column I wrote in a high school newspaper, it’s possible that somebody else was, and that by the nature of things I never heard about it. Some kid who read the thing at fourteen maybe hit the bottom at nineteen and had, in the back of his head, some thing that he read somewhere that somebody had hit bottom and then found that it gets better. You never know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Yeah, if you think about it statistically, I bet that the American teen who is currently most on the brink of suicide is pretty unlikely to be swayed by a video -- but that a lot of teens farther down the list are sway-able. It's not about taking the absolute worst situation in the world and making it awesome, it's about making lots of somewhat lousy situations and making them all a little less lousy.

It seems like a bunch of posts ago, you wrote something theological about intended audience of divine messages, and I said something like "the apparent audience isn't necessarily the affected audience," and this is what I meant.

...and taking to heart your point re: "oh, sure, it might get better for Dan Savage" as well as the sense that avuncular benedictions from adults aren't necessarily meaningful in the moment (see http://marmaladechronofile.tumblr.com/post/1359897052/john-mayer-logic), there's the parallel Make It Better project (http://makeitbetterproject.org/).

I don't have anything to add on the subject this post addresses, but I wanted to thank you for writing it, and for being here to write it!

Chris put into words what I was incoherently feeling.

I have some thoughts about all this, but they haven't quite cohered enough to post.

But I did want to point you to Hal Duncan's It Gets Better video. Note: contains a whole lot of swearing.

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