With the current spate of LGBT youth committing suicide, we have seen campaigns emerge that seek to, it seems, “save lives.” The first to emerge was Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” youtube channel and from that has come notably the “Make it Better” campaign. One campaign reminds us that it gets better (or at least we are meant to hope that life gets better which I am not sure is a productive hope) WHILE the other provides us insights on ways to make it better, in the here and now. One is primarily adults showing the child that “it gets better” while the other is youth showing that it is or might already be “good” and ways to make it so.
I imagine both campaigns are having an impact in the world - even if it is only by making us cry at the stories being told or the inspiration being offered. Some comments I have seen contend such campaigns “save lives” and I suppose I can hope that maybe they will. I am, of course, not opposed to saving lives unless they are lives that do not seek to be saved. I am however interested in these campaigns. We have known for years, decades, and even centuries one could argue that “queer” existence has been plagued with suicide and violence. And it would seem that such historical evidence itself might show us that it may not get better. But, we also know that there have been significant changes with “gay rights” during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM III in 1973 after years of gay activists fighting for such depathologization. Anti-sodomy laws have been struck down. Pride parades are marched in yearly. Gay characters are visible in TV and Film.And so on...
So...on one hand we see that “it gets better” while on the other hand seeing that “it doesn’t get better.” That “better” is itself a precarious concept where what is better for some, might not be “better” for others. We are always grappling with finding ways to “make it better” while also recognizing such a grappling never really ends because someone will always find what’s “better” to in fact not be so, to be problematic, damaging, violent, etc.
In watching various videos from the "It Gets Better" channel, I’ve noticed in many of them that we have adults re-telling their own experiences with bullying and how they overcame such bullying - allowing them to now be fabulous persons (e.g. Adam Lambert, Kate Bornstein, Dan Savage). I think such re-tellings are inspiring and in some cases made me tear up a little bit - I do actually have emotions. However, I think such videos are less about telling “kids” it gets better (although that is still a component) and more about having a cathartic release to an unknown audience. I think these video testimonials are about the person working through their own traumatic experiences whereby the camera becomes the unknown analyst allowing the person to talk, tell their story, and perhaps learn about themselves in the process - perhaps even convincing themselves that it has in fact, "got" better.
This is perhaps most evident in Joel Burn’s testimonial - a heart-wrenching story that he had never before told until this moment. In the video we see him recount the current epidemic of suicides, giving names and faces to those lives lost. It is difficult to hear and see these youth who did not, in fact, know it gets better. But then, Joel, like others who have done videos, moves into his own traumatic past, recounting harassment and violence against his own youthful body. It is here that he breaks down and also where I believe we catch a glimpse of the purpose of this video campaign. The purpose of this video campaign is not to save lives of youth, although that is a secondary hope, but to save the lives of those adults who, in the moment of telling have on the surface “great” lives, but who struggle themselves with their traumatic past. These videos have become a space and time for those who did not have voice before, who could not “speak” up then, to finally speak up now against their bullies - those fantasmatic bullies that haunt them, us, in our dreams, in our stories we tell about being victims as queers.
We, of course, do not hear stories from individuals who grew up “queer” but did not experience this type of harassment, in part because if it has always been "good," then there is no need to say "It gets better." But, beyond this we don’t want to here such stories. Such stories disrupt the solidarity we can feel around victimization and provoke feelings of jealousy or envy because such lives “don’t know what it was like.” In such a move, of course, the victims become the bully, unwilling to allow the “queer” with a non-traumatic experience with their sexual orientation or gender performance to tell their story because that story does not count. And in not allowing it, it becomes a story that is itself not seen as possible. We cannot imagine a "queer" experience without the violence, the bullying, the harassment...
As Laurie Essig in a recent article in The Chronicle notes:
“The fact that way more than five queer teens had an amazing month, had their first love, their first encounter with the richness of queer culture—from drag to politics—is not a story we want to hear as a culture. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of queer kids stood up to a bully, injected queer consciousness into a classroom or a family dinner, and generally lived technicolor lives over the rainbow rather than locked down in some black and white Kansas is lost in the news cycle. We prefer our queers as victims. They're easier to support and much less scary that way.”
So, we can tell stories about our own victimization as youth in order to make an emotional appeal and show that it gets better. We are drawn to, fascinated by the victim narrative because it affects us in some way that a happy narrative does not. For instance, when someone tells of a happy occurrence the conversation usually stays at a very basic level of statements. “That’s great.” or “I’m so happy for you.” whereas when we hear a story of victimization the conversation moves to concern and wanting to be a part of the persons recovery in the form of questions...”What can I do to help?” or “How did that happen?” We are willing to assist those who are struggling but when it comes to people who are leading “happy lives” or had an “amazing month,” we do not care to hear, to discuss. We care to distance ourselves because, perhaps it is less scary that way.
Do we not actually want it to "get better" because if it did, we might have to learn how to be happy? How to relate to the other that we do not know, do not like, do not understand? Do we not want it to get better because it can't get better as we ourselves struggle to make sense of our own traumatic past, hoping to make it through the day? Might we start there, on the self, and how the self might get through the day not to find a better future, somewhere out there...but to survive and relate to the strangers, the family, the friends that we, at times are strangers to ourselves?