“It Gets Better” on the right track

Campaign to help gay teens has an effective approach

In response to Michael Veldman’s piece regarding the “It Gets Better” campaign, I can’t help but wonder: Is the concern truly about the project itself, or his perception of celebrity charity showboating?

Were I young and isolated — the target audience for this project — I would be inclined to skip over the celebrity clips immediately. We know they’re successful and currently happy. Dan Savage is doing just fine for himself being very visible via a wide media presence. Ellen DeGeneres made it out of the “queer purgatory” that coming out on national television had supposedly promised. If I were a teenager in the year 2010 I would already be well aware that there were big, successful LGBT folks and supporters out there that I could look up to. However, they would not be voices that I could relate to.

Instead, I would have sought out the everyday people. The clips that were clearly made by the girl- or guy-next-door. Folks that I could look at as being closer to an actual peer. There are a number of them up there now, and more are showing up daily. If the only positive outcome of celebrity participation is providing an example for those who are debating whether or not to put their voice out there, I am willing to wade through their appearances no matter how “lazy” or “self-serving” they might be.

Perhaps most interesting is Mr. Veldman’s decision to take the thrust of the It Gets Better project and turn it into a side note: “If you have reason to believe it would be detrimental to your well-being to come out as gay, do not come out until your situation changes.”

That, to me, is the entire point of the campaign: turning attention to those who — for now — may have no other way to find people that they understand and can relate to. It can not be overstated that many of the kids that this project targets have absolutely no options for reaching out that would not put them in danger. So where does that leave them? Looking up “homosexual” in the dictionary just to remind themselves that it is possible to hear the word discussed neutrally, as I used to do?

When I was a teenager in the eighties, the only visibly gay people acted as the punchline in sitcoms and movies, or were illustrated as miserable and defeated, or were dying of AIDS (and media portrayals today have not changed as much as we’d like to think). Despite supportive family and friends, it was a detriment that I did not know any LGBT folks. It would have been very comforting to be able to tune in and listen to a whole group of people who were experiencing variations of what I was going through. I yearned for connections that I could relate to, and would have gladly settled for — and been greatly encouraged by — all of these voices, electronic though they may be.

Chastising contributors for not offering a laundry list of suicide hotlines and support groups in every video makes little sense. Not only would it bring an off-putting, repetitive and didactic feel to the videos, but I suggest it is likely that if young people are able to find their way to the It Gets Better YouTube channel they have probably already searched around the web for other resources as well. But there is a big difference between knowing a resource is available and being in a position to be able to take advantage of it — especially when the stakes are as high as they can be for a young person who is struggling with their sexuality.

My understanding is that the project seeks to speak directly to those who for whatever reason can not reach out to groups and hotlines without revealing more of themselves than they are comfortable with. To encourage them to see the possibilities and to recognize that while it may take some patience, there are most likely better days ahead when they go to college or move out on their own. Perhaps hearing how others went about making their way will provide some support and direction, but “stress[ing] the urgent need to get help” might have the exact opposite effect — making kids feel that they are damaged.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Veldman found it necessary to end his piece with a needlessly abrupt value judgment (“garbage”). The project may be seen as flawed and the celebrity participation may be questionable, but I firmly believe that its heart is in the right place. Not only that, it appears to working: an October 18 New York Times piece about the project mentions that youths have begun reaching out to at least one of the non-celebrity contributors, acknowledging the value the project has for them as they make their way through their own struggles. This does not seem much to me like garbage.

James M. Long is an administrative assistant in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.