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."

Obviously, the It Gets Better project is good, and worthwhile, and necessary. And obviously, it's better for the world to have any version of it than no version at all. Savage himself took note of "the odd bitchy e-mail" in a blog post, and made a point of reminding his critics that "there's nothing about this project—nothing about participating in this project—that prevents people from doing more." In an e-mail conversation, my Tiger Beatdown co-blogger Garland Grey characterized many of the critics as "the type of people who complain about every problematic thing that exists in the world as if they were all equally offensive;" although the campaign might not address the structural problems that make life as an adult harder for GLBT people, he said, "I think it is important those queer kids grow up to be adults."

Of course. But some critics are not only spotlighting potential problems; they're creating their own solutions. Take, for example, the We Got Your Back Project.href> Like It Gets Better, it encourages GLBT folks to share their stories of hardship, and to offer messages of hope and support. But its goals, according to its mission statement, explicitly include "starting conversations about the importance of inclusion within our community," addressing "biphobia, transphobia, and racism," and "mobilizing the LGBTQIA community in support of anti-bullying and anti-violence legislation."

"We want to make sure everyone's voice is heard," reads the website. "This is not an effort to compete with the 'It Gets Better Project' but to supplement it."

It remains to be seen how effective it will be; obviously, We Got Your Back doesn't have the platform or the connections of It Gets Better. But then, many organized smaller groups, focused on local and direct action, could actually provide more immediate support to struggling queer youth than one large national campaign. And creating change from scratch—even if you don't have connections or a high profile, even if you're just one person with a blog or a few friends deciding to create an outreach project because it's the kind of project you want to see—is an essential part of activism.

And, as It Gets Better picks up steam, more contributors are providing resources for teens in crisis. Two of the more recent and star-studded PSAs were uploaded by the Trevor Project,href> a suicide prevention hotline specifically for GLBT youth. The Trevor Project also provides a safe, moderated message board on which isolated queer teens can reach out to one another. All of this is commendable. It does get better, for some people, some of the time. And sometimes, it even gets better all on its own. But things are far more likely to improve for children in crisis if someone makes things better; if change isn't just something for those bullied teens to look forward to, but something that all of us have the responsibility to create.