Does 'It Gets Better' Make Life Better for Gay Teens?

At first glance, it seems impossible that any reasonable person could have a problem with the It Gets Better project. The outreach campaign, started by writer Dan Savage, is a wonderful thing; it's a series of brief, personal messages for GLBT teens who are considering suicide, assuring them that life is worth living.



Because it's on the Internet, anyone can access these messages, or upload one; because it's associated with several well-known names (actress Anne Hathaway, singer Ke$ha, and Project Runway's Tim Gunn, to name a few) it's likely to get attention and reach more teens in crisis. And in many ways, "It Gets Better" operates in the same way that decent abuse counseling does: It identifies what is happening to these children as wrong, it tells them that they don't deserve it and that it's not their fault, and it gives them permission to actually perceive themselves as victims of sustained cruelty, rather than special, faulty, unlovable freaks who bring bad treatment on themselves by virtue of existing. For people who've been abused, these aren't just compassionate platitudes, they're necessary tools for survival. The question, however, is whether these tools alone are enough.

Can telling teens who are considering suicide that "it gets better" actually help them deal with their present realities? In some cases, yes. Even the possibility of a better future can be enough to get some people through the day. And when it comes to people who are suicidal, it often seems that "it gets better" is the only possible response to what they're feeling. No one actually knows if things are going to get better; nobody can see the future. But it's important to believe that they will, because it might be the only coping mechanism for dealing with otherwise unbearable pain. If every day is terrible, and worse than the day that came before it, the only thing to do is to hold out for the "better" one. To act as if it's around the corner, somewhere, eventually.

However, if we keep telling suicidal people that their situation will "get better" without actually taking any steps to improve it—if we don't provide support and medical care for people with depression; if we don't help people who are being abused to find a safe place; if we don't make sure that the systematic, community-wide abuse of GLBT youth is eliminated—then belief alone can wear thin. And this seems to be one of the main contentions of Savage's critics.

"There is actually no path to change in this vision," alleges blogger Rebecca Novack, in a post from her personal blog which was re-published at Queerwatch. "Promoting the illusion that things just 'get better,' enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world."

Novack's post presents a long list of criticisms, and you probably won't agree with every single one. But others have noted that privilege does play a large and unspoken role in many of the project's narratives; especially for GLBT folks who are also facing other forms of oppression, leaving their home towns and entering an accepting GLBT community may be much harder and more complicated than it looks.

"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," writes Queeriously, of the Below the Belt, in his own critique. "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."

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Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at Tigerbeatdown.com.

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