Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It Gets Better Project - Visibility and Affirmation

By now, you have probably heard of the It Gets Better Project, a YouTube campaign of videos launched by Dan Savage in September 2010 to raise awareness of gay bullying and to provide support and hope for young people facing harassment. If you haven't already heard about it, Savage and his partner Terry launched the campaign in response to a wake of gay teen suicides, in the hopes that he, and those who would make similar videos, could provide the message that if teenagers held on, their lives would eventually get better. It's a very simple, direct message, and one that has inspired thousands of people to record and post their own messages.

The campaign is not without its detractors. A columnist in Toronto's Xtra! accused the campaign of vastly oversimplifying the issues facing the queer community, and perhaps facilitating complacency or sidestepping the real social challenges facing gay and lesbian youth that require new policies and programs. Musician Owen Pallett observed that for him there were other issues, most notably clinical depression, that would not simply get better on their own. Many have been openly critical of senior US administration figures, such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who participated in the campaign, but have done little to take advantage of their political power to make meaningful changes.

For what it's worth, I tend to come down on the side of those who praise the campaign as just one piece in a larger campaign of social activism, and one that can work alongside and in conjunction with campaigns for political, legal and social change.

Which brings me (finally) to the main point of this post. Many of my gay and lesbian friends, and I am not an exception to this rule, have observed that when they watch these videos, they tend to get really emotional and teary-eyed. And that's not a sentiment which is limited to those who felt suicidal or attempted suicide as teenagers - it's a much broader phenomenon. For me, it's not unlike the feelings that I had at my first few Pride parades as a young man just coming out of the closet. It invokes a sense of community, of shared experience, of support, and also of joy at having been able to make it through the difficult coming out process and accept one's sexuality. And to my view, that speaks to a much broader and more subtle impact of the It Gets Better project. Because while the immediate message is targeted at those facing harassment, in many ways this is an echo of 1970s (and later) gay liberation messaging about the need for visibility, for having large numbers of open gay men and lesbians to create a sense of community, and to raise awareness of their existence among the greater population.

I've been really enjoying some of the new "second wave" videos that are being created by workers in organizations like Pixar because of how it puts a human face on co-workers at an organization. I also liked this Canadian group video of celebrities, politicians and artists for the impact it had of a whole group of reasonably high-profile gay and lesbians all telling their stories at once. That latter video probably had its greatest impact because of Rick Mercer's openness about his experiences. Mercer is a household name in Canada, but few outside the gay community really were aware that he's gay, despite how candid he has been. And that's one of the impacts that the homemade videos are having as well by putting a very diverse human face on gay and lesbian life - young, old, married, single, from a host of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. It's almost like the story-telling complement to a Pride March, where all the diversity that you see briefly in the parade gets a chance to tell their human stories, so that you can hear from the gay father, the dyke on a bike, the leatherboy, the drag queen, and the politician in their own words about what growing up gay or lesbian was like, and how their lives are now. They are everyday role models from all walks of life, which is really important not only for youth, but for adults who continue to struggle with homophobia (both internalized and in the world around them) in their daily lives.

The fact that, like Pride Parades, the It Gets Better Project is attracting such high-profile support from politicians, celebrities and straight allies is indicative of the impact that it is having in raising visibility of these issues. I think it's a good thing that high profile British, American and Canadian politicians think they need to participate in this movement. But moreoever, to me it suggests that, although the legal and political campaigns are far from over, there is a real need to spend more time on the social side of raising the visibility of the human face of gay and lesbian life in order foster more grassroots support in our broader communities for the political, social and legal changes that are also needed.

Kudos to Dan Savage for launching this initiative. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get a box of Kleenex and watch a few more videos.

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At 10:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with these videos is that they appeal to gay adults like yourself. They do not offer any answers for actual suicidal LGBTQ teens, who need treatment and counseling, like any suicidal teen.

At 10:40 am, Blogger Matt said...

I disagree, Anonymous. Many of the videos do point LGBTQ teens to either the Trevor Project (in the US) or other queer youth helplines in Canada or other countries. The videos don't encompass everything, but they are one piece in a broader social movement.

Moreover, I think that the spin-off benefit of re-engaging gay adults - many of whom checked out of Pride or other community engagement a long time ago - is a valuable impact, particularly if even a few of them re-engage in other forms of community activism or engagement.

At 11:28 am, Anonymous Eamon said...

Just as an aside... Have you watched the show Glee at any point recently? The whole story arch right now is about bullying a gay student. It is one of the more impressive attempts that I've seen at making this issue really mainstream. I mean, Glee is one of the most-watched shows on TV right now and it isn't taking the easy route of ignoring the issue and focusing on more traditional story archs - relationship between main male and female characters being the most common.

At 2:24 pm, Blogger Jordan Kerr said...

a historical precedent to the campaign. http://christophermoorehistory.blogspot.com/2010/11/pioneers-of-it-gets-better.html


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