November 2, 2011 at 11:30 pm EDT | by Sean Cotter
‘It Gets Better’ campaign jumps the shark

Since Dan Savage started his “It Gets Better” campaign, it has seen a surprising amount of support in the media and from unexpected sources. It seems nearly each day, a new video makes headlines because of the high-profile person who appears in it — athletes, celebrities, politicians. The vast majority of these news-making videos come from straight people, many of whom might not have been expected to come out in support of gay youth in the past.

But for some time now, it has seemed that these videos have failed to live up to everything that made the “It Gets Better” campaign so powerful when it began, and have instead become a publicity tool for making straight public figures look good.

Why did “It Gets Better” seem like such a noble cause in the beginning? Because it achieved a very specific goal: It gave LGBT youth who are feeling scared, confused, uncomfortable about their feelings and their futures a hopeful voice to listen to. As difficult as it is for LGBT kids to find peers who understand them and are going through the same thing, it can be nearly impossible for them to have a direct talk with someone who has already been through it, who has grown up, understands what they’re going through from personal experience, and can say that it really does get better.

As a kid, it can be difficult to see beyond your current situation, and this is amplified for LGBT youth who often have no one they can talk to about what they are going through. What these kids need more than anything else is to be told that they have a future. The first “It Gets Better” videos seemed to be about just that.

Then straight people made videos. They couldn’t say they’d been in the intended audience’s shoes, but they had good intentions and wanted to provide moral support. The president of the United States made one, and that was historic so it made headlines. It was a nice gesture, but also vague and less personal because President Obama couldn’t really say he knew what it was like to grow up gay. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a video, which was historic as well, given the State Department’s own “bullying” of its gay employees during the Cold War. It was important, notable, newsworthy, but again didn’t do any of the things a heart-to-heart conversation between an out gay adult and a confused, scared, closeted teen was supposed to do.

Bullying and gay teen suicide became mainstream news stories in 2011, and they were generally the focus of the “It Gets Better” videos, despite the fact that direct bullying is just one of the factors that can make life miserable for gay teens (loneliness, pressure for most to stay closeted, fear that they’ll never find people who are like them are other factors). As more straight celebrities, politicians and athletes made videos, they began to focus primarily on the general idea of “being picked on.” Congressman Jim Moran’s video is uncomfortable to watch because, having no experience to relate to troubled gay teens with, he resorts to talking about how he was a “shy kid” growing up. He looks like he doesn’t know what else to say, and how could he? He never grew up with the broad, institutional persecution that LGBT youth face. But with so many other politicians making similar videos, his office must have felt that it needed to make its own.

Perhaps the new “It Gets Better” video from the United States congressional delegation from New Jersey, which features several politicians who have voted against pro-gay legislation in Congress, marks the point when this campaign has truly jumped the shark. As reported by Elizabeth Flock of the Washington Post, Rep. Leonard Lance, who appears in the video, voted against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, who says in the video, “There are actions we can take to make things better now,” voted against repeal of DADT and for the Marriage Protection Act, which would prohibit federal courts from hearing cases that involve challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act. Rep. Jon Runyan appears in the video and has said in the past that he supports civil unions but that gay people should not be allowed to be married. The congressmen may tout their disapproval of classic schoolyard bullying, and yet they are contributing to a public culture that enshrines discrimination against LGBT people into law.

The fact that a YouTube video can be seen as more important than an anti-gay congressional record signifies that the “It Gets Better” campaign has now become just as shallow as our political discourse.

Direct bullying is not the only thing that pressures gay kids to either stay closeted or risk facing social consequences. Public disapproval on a broad level can make a gay teenager’s situation seem more hopeless, and it can make traditional “bullying” seem supported by society – in the eyes of both the bully and the person being bullied. This type of bullying is more pervasive and can cause deep damage to self-esteem.

What these kids need is love, respect, and for somebody to tell them that they’ve been where they are and know what it’s like. It is still too early to tell how the intended audience is being affected by the “It Gets Better” campaign. We can only hope that when they are older and when they can answer back and tell us about what they went through, they will say that they were inspired by the campaign, that it didn’t seem like a cynical ploy for people to grab media attention by feigning tolerance, and a tool for politicians to conceal their hypocrisy.

  • Congressman Jim Moran is one of the most pro LGBT Congressmen on the Hill. He has an incredible record of support and reaching out to the LGBT Community. I know of his good work based on first hand experience.

    Congressman Moran’s message was unscripted and heartfelt. What this writer doesn’t seem to understand is that one of the major benefits of the campaign is making it easier for other straight people to stand up for LGBT people. By standing up for LGBT folks it benefits the climate as a whole so young people dealing with their sexual orientation can handle those growing pains in a safe, non-threatening environment.

    I find this editorial disgusting. Congressman Jim Moran has been with the LGBT community on every vote, every bill going back to DOMA and beyond, even as Mayor during a time when the politics weren’t favorable, to criticize him for participating in this campaign, is repulsive.

    Charley Conrad, Arlington Virginia
    Past President Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club
    Past Chair LGBT Caucus Democratic Party of Virginia

  • Calm down, Mr. Conrad! Words such as “disgusting” and “repulsive” should really not be used in the course of civilized discussion, especially by people on the same side. Mr. Cotter was merely stating his opinion (this is an “opinions” column, after all) that Rep. Moran’s “It gets better” video was not particularly good or effective. That doesn’t take away from Rep. Moran’s support of the LGBT community, which should certainly be lauded.

    I generally tend to agree with this article. Gay youth are looking to these videos to be able to believe that it does get better. Hearing from straight allies is nice for us older gay folk, but does little to help the intended audience. When I was a closeted teenager I looked for any sign that it was possible to live a happy and normal life as a gay person. I didn’t know a single gay person and gays I saw on TV were mostly sad and pathetic. I wish I had older out gay people I could hear from at that time.

  • I had my concerns as soon as I heard that previously indifferent-to-unfriendly heterosexuals suddenly discovered their concern for queer youth. First, they seem to expect us to believe that words speak more loudly than deeds. Second, how do they know? I routinely hear that unless I have first-hand experience of life as a (fill in the blank), I have no business expressing an opinion on that life. Give me one good reason not to apply that rule consistently.

  • Our largest LGBT organizations–including HRC, NGLTF, the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, and Fenway Health in Boston–need to advocate for and fund efforts to support mentoring opportunities between older and younger LGBT people. The “It Gets Better Campaign” started with the right intentions, but we need campaigns and curricula and exhibits that celebrate and commemorate LGBT heroes and role models. HIV prevention researchers, behavioral scientists looking at how best to support young LGBT people in making healthy sexual and other choices, tell me in interviews that supporting healthy, confident young LGBT people leads to less risky and self-destructive behavior as they become adults. We can’t just throw condoms at young people who haven’t yet worked through potentially years of psychological trauma, and insist they suddenly make healthy self- and partner-protective choices 100% of the time.

  • Sean, Jim Moran seemed like he didn’t know what to say because he was likely drunk at the time and couldn’t focus.

  • I understand the idea that there is no substitute for LGBTQ people hearing the experiences of other LGBTQ people. I also understand the importance of having straight allies. Let’s not “turn away” straight support because they are not part of “our club.” Maybe this just means that we could catalog the videos so that an LGBTQ kid or person in crisis could click on one link if they want to hear from someone like them and another link if they want to hear from someone who is not like them but who still supports them. Change will come when people who are like us and people who are *not* like us stand together and stand up for what is right. We need straight people on our side – these videos are positive things. They don’t give the exact same messages that the videos that LGBTQ people make give, but they give important messages nonetheless.

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