December 17, 2010

Dan Savage Interview, Part 2: It Gets Better Project

In part two of a five-part series, Dan Savage talks about his It Gets Better Project and the culture of bullying in grade schools and high schools.

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Question: What motivated you to start the It Gets Better Project. And, what do you make of the bullying that has resulted in the rash of highly publicized teen and pre-teen suicides?

The Beginning Of A Movement

Annie Corrigan: Probably much to the chagrin of the anti-gay conservatives that you were talking about, gay people are even more in the spotlight these days because of the It Gets Better Project. If people haven’t heard about it, it was your response to the news of all the suicides by teenagers who were bullied for being gay or for being perceived as gay. This touched home in Indiana because Billy Lucas was one of the first casualties.

Dan Savage: Billy Lucas was the reason we started it. We started the campaign and we registered the domain on September 15th, after Billy Lucas’ death. It took us a week to get the video out. In that week, after our video was up we found out about Asher Brown and Seth Walsh and Cody Barker in Wisconsin. And then of course, Tyler Clemente which made the whole issue explode nationally. But it was really Billy Lucas’ suicide that – I don’t want to use the word inspired, it’s too upbeat a word – prompted or compelled us to do something.

AC: He was from Greensburg, Indiana, which is just up the street from us here in Bloomington. I want to read something that you said in your podcast when you were introducing this project to people. “We have the ability to talk to these kids right now. We don’t need the permission of their parents or their school principals to talk to them. Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories, to let them know that it gets better.” And what came from that is a YouTube channel where people can submit their videos talking about their lives and talking about perhaps what happened to them in the past but also how they persevered through it. You were the first person to add a video, obviously, with your partner, Terry.

DS: Right, and the response has been tremendous. I’ve always felt – I felt this way after hearing about Billy Lucas’ suicide and Justin Aberg’s before him this summer in Minnesota – the reaction as a gay adult is always, “God, I wish I could have talked to that kid and just be able to tell him it gets better.” It makes me want to cry to talk about it. Knowing you would never get permission, knowing you would never be invited to talk to these kids because it would bring charges of recruitment, you’re trying to brainwash kids, you’re trying to seduce them.

Surviving Adolescence

The deal culturally has been for gays and lesbians, “You’re ours to torture until you’re 18 and then you can graduate from high school and you can do what you want and we can’t touch you anymore. But you can’t do anything about the kids we’re currently torturing.” That was the deal.

We obviously weren’t the only gay, lesbian, bi or trans people out there who felt like, “God, I wish I could talk to these kids, but no one will ever give me permission.” My partner and I, by giving ourselves permission to talk to them, kind of sparked this thing where everybody realized all at once that they didn’t need the permission anymore to talk and tell their stories.

And not just tell their stories of bullying. Kids who are being bullied know what being bullied is like. There were a lot of videos of people with heartbreaking tales of what they suffered. But the most important part of the video is where they’re at now, how they got through it, how they coped, what their strategies were. There are a lot of videos from people talking about things they did to improve the schools they were in or their situation. So you know, making it better, not just waiting it out for it to get better.

Reaching Out To Rural America

Really what kids need to see and have disproved for them, someone particularly like Billy Lucas… You look at where these suicides are taking place: Greensburg, Indiana; Unincorporated Houston county; some small town in California I can’t pronounce; Stoiken, Wisconsin. These kids are isolated. They don’t see openly gay, successful, happy, content adults, even just in passing in a restaurant or on the street. I know when I was a kid – I grew up in Chicago in the 1970’s – every once in a while I would see gay people and think, “I’ll be alright.” I would see a gay couple in a restaurant or a group of gay people on a bus or walking down the street, on the subway, and think, “I’ll be fine. One day I can join that.” But in Greensburg, what could he see?

So, show your life and show your joy. That’s what we kept saying to people. We want you to share your joy, not just your pain. They know it hurts. Share your joy, because a 15-year-old gay kid who kills himself, what he’s saying is he can’t picture a future with enough joy to compensate for the pain now.

And I think that’s very radical and revolutionary and subversive, not waiting for your permission anymore to talk to your kid and save your kid’s life. We’re going over your head, Mom and Dad. Over your head, bigoted school administrators. Over your head bigoted religious “leaders.” We’re going to talk to your kids and we’re going to show them that what they’re being told about being gay and lesbian or bi and trans is not true.

The Face Of A Movement

AC: You’re all over the place in the media because of this. So what’s it like being the face of this project? Sort of being the face of the movement.

DS: Well, now Joel Burns is the face. He’s the city councilman in Fort Worth, Texas who made one of the most moving videos. It has more views than mine and Terry’s now. Terry is really delighted about that. He doesn’t like being recognized in public. He’d rather have Joel Burns be recognized in public.

Some people don’t like that it’s me, because some people don’t like me. I write the dirtiest sex column in the history of sex columns, and I say things that piss people off, and my partner aren’t a couple of lawyers. Because I’m running the whole project, we have videos from porn stars, and we have videos from drag queens.

One really funny one that I think is really delightful is these two guys who are white gay guys talking to gay boys. Their video is for gay boys. At one point they stop and go – “Oh, we should probably think about what 15 year old gay boys are interested in and not just talk about the stuff we’re interested in.” And then suddenly the room is full of guys in their underwear. Really hot, cute guys just sort of milling around in their underwear.

People have asked me to take all these videos down, and even edit and censor my video with Terry, because we talk about how we met and we talk about the dirty things we said to each other. The flirty, dirty, cheesy things we said to each other. I’ve gotten notes from people saying that that’s the wrong thing to say and it makes us look sex obsessed. Well you know what, one of the things these kids have to look forward to is flirting, and meeting people and saying silly things to each other in bars, and maybe meeting your life partner that way.

Sex and relationships and fun and cute people, you know, however you define that – conventionally attractive or unconventionally attractive – that’s something that’s worth sticking around for. That is one of the ways it gets better. And because I’m running this, we’re not going to censor all of that joy. One of the things that brings you joy as an openly gay adult is your sex life.

Preventing Support From Inside Schools

AC: There’s a video that I found really compelling by a lesbian and a bisexual woman. They’re teachers who did their video with masks on because they can’t be out at their jobs. It’s very powerful.

DS: It’s like a hostage video. It is very powerful. They show flip cards. You don’t even hear their voices. What they’re saying with the flip cards is, “Look around your school. We’re there. Even if you don’t think there’s any teachers there, just look around for one of us. You can come to us, but we can’t come to you. We can’t be out.” That’s really powerful, and it’s a message that I think kids need to hear. I think it’s a message that straight people need to hear about.

Part of the problem is there is no Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). You can be fired for being gay or lesbian in most parts of the country. If those teachers could be out without being retaliated against, the queer kids in that school, your kid could be one of the queer kids in that school… You don’t want to find out the day your kid committed suicide, that your kid was the queer kid in the school who had no support and no one to turn to. But your kid could be the queer kid in the school who could go to that person if she could be out. If it was known that there were safe spaces, lesbian teachers, gay teachers, that they could rely on. It’s really a heartbreaking video.

From Living Rooms To Capitol Hill

AC: There is another interesting video, sort of in the same vein as It Gets Better, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

DS: She did say it gets better. She uses the phrase so we qualified it and stuck it on the website.

AC: It’s reached that far! That’s amazing.

DS: When it started, it was me and my boyfriend sitting in a bar. Another thing that ticked off a bunch of people. I got a bunch of emails about that. Bars are bad and alcohol is bad and drinking is bad. It’s like, we met in a bar. My parents met in a bar.

But anyway, it went from me and my boyfriend having cocktails and talking in a bar about how we met and swapping dirty jokes and talking about our joy, to Hillary Clinton in four weeks.

I really do think it’s a watershed moment culturally, where people are having to recognize that the religious right is lying, and that if there is anything besides saving lives that this will accomplish… The most important thing is saving lives, giving these kids hope, giving them coping mechanisms, giving them advice about what they can do, that’s the most important thing. If it can finally give the lie to being gay is a choice, because that’s what the religious right now – they went very quiet for a while – now they’re starting to speak up. They would have us believe that Asher Brown, 13 years old, chose to be gay. That it was an easier choice for Asher Brown to put a bullet in his head than to just choose to be straight. At 13.

Not Addressing The Problem?

AC: Some critics say that this video project isn’t addressing the real problem, which is a culture of hate in kids, a culture of hate in high school and grade schools and the bullying. So what do you say to those people?

DS: You’re right. This is triage, this project. I wrote a piece about it. This doesn’t solve the problem of bullying. It provides hope. It provides, again, coping strategies and mechanisms. It provides a little bit of advice. It provides a shoulder to cry on.

My brother was more brutally bullied in grade school than I was. I called him from HPER (The School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University), because I was thinking about it at the gym. I just called him to say, “You know, I remember that you had it worse in grade school than I did, and you were straight and you were more brutally bullied than I was, it was worse for you.” And this is why I love him so much. He said, “Yeah, you’re right, but I had Mom and Dad and you didn’t.”

So many LGBT kids have no one to turn to. They’re bullied at school, bullied at home, bullied at church on Sundays. They don’t have a shoulder to cry on. If nothing else, this project provides thousands and thousands and thousands of shoulders to cry on.

One of the unexpected benefits of the way we did it, where we didn’t say send us raw video and we’ll post it to YouTube. We said create your own YouTube account, post your video and then we’ll put it on the website. Anybody who responds to a video or comments on the video, it goes right to the person who made the video, not to us. So there are all these people out there who are hearing from teenagers and young adults who are in the exact same situation that they were in, that they talk about in their videos. And they are responding to them, emailing with them, referring them to the Trevor Project. They are being that shoulder to cry on that so many LGBT kids lack, because they can’t turn to their parents. Because their parents are homophobes or because they’re afraid they might be homophobes.

Waiting For Legislation

So yeah. It doesn’t stop bullying. We need safe schools legislation. We need anti-bullying programs. We need arrests and prosecutions of kids who assault other kids. If an 18-year-old goes to a mall and beats up an old lady, he gets arrested. If that 18-year-old goes to school and beats up a 13-year-old, he doesn’t even get suspended. There’s something really wrong there.

We also need to recognize that we can’t snap our fingers and have safe schools legislation and anti-bullying programs and crimes treated like crimes everywhere all at once across the country. In the meantime, what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about these kids who are – right now, in these extreme situations where they are bullied – alone, isolated, miserable and thinking about suicide. You can’t tell me it’s illegitimate to reach out to those kids and just say, “Hang in there. I made it. You can make it. Here’s how I got through it. Here’s where I am now. Hang in there.”

I don’t know how we got from Harvey Milk saying somebody will open a newspaper and see a story about an openly gay person being elected in the San Francisco City council and take hope and that can change a life, to how dare you? This doesn’t do everything so you shouldn’t do it at all? Is that what the critics would have us do? Pull the whole site down because it doesn’t solve the problem? Well you know, the breast cancer march didn’t end breast cancer, right? Should we not have breast cancer awareness month and breast cancer marches? They’re just grousing, these people, and they can suck my dick. (Laughing)

AC: (Laughing) They’re not going to stop bullying, these videos, and unfortunately, they’re not going to stop suicides, and there is news of another gay suicide recently.

D: No, but a gay kid who didn’t commit suicide isn’t going to make the news. I’m hearing every day from teenagers who are watching these videos and taking hope, and most heartbreakingly, I’m hearing from parents who have felt helpless watching their kids be bullied for being LGBT. They’re sitting down at computers with their kids to watch these videos together. They’re telling me that they’re taking hope.

Yeah, there are still going to be suicides. You know, we pass hate crimes legislation, there are still going to be hate crimes. You pass anti-discrimination legislation, there’s still going to be discrimination. There’s a remedy then. There is something you can do about it. I have no illusions that this will save every life, but I know it has already saved lives.

Media Creation Or Epidemic?

AC: Since it’s so prevalent in the news these days, is the media grabbing at this as a story to focus on – gay suicide or should we call this an epidemic?

DS: We don’t know that it’s an epidemic. This could just be a confluence of shark attacks, right? Gay teenagers are four to six times more likely to commit suicide. Suicide is a problem. Bullying is a problem. I shouldn’t compare it to shark attacks, because that’s just a media creation, but there was this spate of suicides breaking through to the national media and it took off.

We did this before Asher, before Seth, before Cody, before Raymond, before Tyler because Justin Aberg’s suicide and Billy Lucas’ suicide were bad enough. My boyfriend and I were taking action after hearing about those two. If the media needed a handful more to really respond and raise people’s awareness, okay. It’s a case of, “The media is paying attention. We’re going to grouse about that and if they were ignoring these suicides, we were going to grouse about that.”

More: Listen to Part 3 of Kinsey Confidential’s conversation with Dan Savage.

  • I turned my blog into an LGBT blog because of Seth Walsh. He touched me to the depths of my soul.