In the fall of 2010, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller recorded a video that shared a message of hope with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The video, whose message was “it gets better,” was a response to a rash of LGBTQ youth committing suicide, often in response to bullying they dealt with on a daily basis.
While losing young people to suicide is tragically not a new phenomenon, addressing the problems faced by bullied students – often including a lack of response to the treatment they have endured – has been at the forefront of our minds for several years now, from the popularity of the It Gets Better video series to documentaries like Bully.
Storytelling is at the heart of the It Gets Better series. Despite being years out of high school, both Savage and Miller are emotional when discussing the treatment they received in high school, including being shoved into lockers and having their personal property damaged.
“However bad it is now,” Savage says, “it gets better.” He goes on to say that life can even be awesome, but that adolescents “have to tough this period out.”
That message didn’t sit well with some students who wanted immediate action rather than scraping by until graduation. For a time, a youth-led project called Make It Better (that now appears to be defunct) helped LGBTQ youth force the change they needed to survive high school.
Myranda Warden, director of programs and training at Indiana Youth Group, says, “For those of us whom [It Gets Better] gave hope to, that’s beautiful. For those who weren’t content to wait, it inspired action and a righteous anger to do something about their situations, and I think that’s beautiful as well.”
IYG is a social service agency that “creates safe spaces, provides wellness programming and educates LGBTQ youth and the community.”
- Courtesy GMCLA
The Gay Men's Choir of Los Angeles will perform It Gets Better this Saturday at Clowes.
“I remember the videos instilling hope for me and others I spoke to, but 'it getting better' isn’t something that’s going to magically happen," says Warden. "It’s going to take action on behalf of the responsible adults in these youths’ lives to make it better for them.
Making it better means addressing mental health issues that are still rampant in LGBTQ youth. It means addressing family system issues, school policies to make schools safer places and addressing communities at large to make it safer, which include legislative policies specifically for our community. For it to get better, we have to do it.”
IYG shares its message with everyone in Indiana, providing resources and support to youth, adults, families, schools and communities at large. Graham Brinklow, manager of training at IYG, travels the state and provides educational programming and cultural competency training to schools and personnel who request help, such as providing support for students in transition.
Residents of the Hoosier State have special cause to be concerned: Indiana has the highest rate in the country of teens who say they have seriously contemplated suicide. According to Mental Health America of Greater Indianapolis, that's 53,000 Hoosier high school-aged youth who have considered taking their lives. And suicide remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in the state.
Seeing the need on a national level and based, in part, on the success of the video series, It Gets Better was turned into a stage show that tours the country. It “brings to life real-life stories from lesbian, gay, transgender, genderqueer and straight allies from across America and infuses them with dynamic musical numbers.” The production is backed by an eight-member cast from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles who collaborate with local citizens prior to the show to personalize the experience for attendees.
James Cramer, community relations manager at Clowes Memorial Hall, says, "We’re really looking forward to having this opportunity to create a safe environment for sharing ideas about this important topic in our community. Come be entertained by things you might not be comfortable with. Come away transformed in some way.”
- Courtesy GMCLA
The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles tour the country performing with the mission to "change hearts and minds through the power of music."
IYG’s Bigelow was part of the working group that brought It Gets Better to Indianapolis, and he also helped facilitate a community conversation at Clowes. (The public symposium, part of the Clowes Conversations series, took place a week ago today (Jan. 20th) and can be viewed on Clowes’ website.) It featured Clowes’ James Cramer; Brandie Oliver, assistant professor in School Counseling (College of Education) at Butler University; and musician Amy Dolphin.
The youth workers spoke to a small crowd about the needs of LGBTQ youth in today's climate. Oliver urged those in counseling positions to “actively listen to youth, to be okay with discomfort.” Supporting young people can be very difficult, unfortunately, in a right-to-hire, right-to-fire state like Indiana. Forming something as simple as a gay-straight alliance, something that Bigelow helps facilitate, can be a challenge, especially in smaller, conservative communities for whom tolerance and acceptance are big hurdles to clear. Thankfully, resources like IYG exist.
Educators who advocate for LGBTQ youth exist. Musicians like Amy Dolphin who spread messages of love and acceptance exist.
Starting conversations about sensitive topics such as sexuality, coming out and living openly as an LGBTQ person can be difficult, but it is crucial. Despite the nationwide legalization of gay marriage and the strides made toward the acceptance of LGBTQ persons, including the right to hospital visitation, being openly LGBTQ remains an issue for many people in many places. Luckily, change happens, albeit excruciatingly slowly at times. People like Dan Savage are to thank, in part, for that success. The response to one, simple video was overwhelming and incredibly positive. Videos poured in from around the world from youth, adults, activists, celebrities, musicians, and even politicians, including President Obama. To date, more than 50,000 videos have been uploaded to the It Gets Better site and more continue to arrive. It's safe to say that Savage connected with a segment of society desperate for their voices to be heard.
- Courtesy GMCLA
It Gets Better enlists the musical talent of the Gay Men's Choir of Los Angeles. It was founded in 1979 during the emergence of the gay civil rights movement, and it continues to emphasize the need for a dialogue about the damage bullying causes in this country still today.
The storytelling aspect of the videos is at the heart of the project's success. It may be difficult for LGBTQ youth in the process of coming out to believe that the difficulties they are facing do, in fact, fade away, that the trials and tribulations of adolescence, compounded by confronting the truth about one's own sexuality, are some of the same issues that thousands of other people have faced. It may be difficult or even impossible to imagine a life where daily bullying, confusion and even self-hatred are no longer the weighty issues they once were. It Gets Better provides a resource that everyone can use, especially parents and friends who want to but do not know the best way to offer support to someone they love.
The It gets better stage show will be performed at Clowes this Saturday (Jan. 30th), at 8 p.m. Patrons who visit www.cloweshall.org and use the promo code BETTER can attend the performance for free (while seats last). Everyone can benefit from visiting the It Gets Better site, whether you are a LGBTQ person seeking answers, support and resources for yourself or someone else in your life or if you are a straight ally who wants to help. Those interested in learning more about bullying prevention can listen to WFYI’s No Limits podcast, which featured some of the speakers from last Wednesday’s Clowes Conversations.