Most likely, I am one of those gays you don't know you know: writer of a syndicated magazine column (QueerSay by Gossip Gay), producer of an award-winning variety show at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (The Village Variety Pack), and a mover and shaker on more Hollywood red carpets than you can shake a superficial stick at. I am,by no means a celebrity, but I do consider myself a West Hollywood "professional gay" with strong opinions and an even stronger voice.
That is exactly why I found it imperative to create my personal "It Gets Better" antibullying video -- with a unique, unconventional twist. I didn't think much would come from it. A kitschy seven-minute stop-motion cartoon, it lightheartedly outlined my coming-out experience, complete with musical numbers and special guest appearances by Reba McEntire and HBO hottie Ryan Kwanten. As the video shows, I was outed to my entire eighth-grade class after expressing my love for my best friend, "Darren," through a Reba karaoke mix tape. Painful bullying ensued at the hands of my classmates. However, in reaching out to my support system, I found the strength to move on. Darren eventually apologized, and all was once again right with the world.
Well, the cartoon went viral. Within a single day, it was shared over 200 times on Facebook. It was picked up by Towleroad, Funny or Die, Frontiers magazine, Yahoo! and even here, online at The Advocate. NPR even mentioned it in one of its antibullying reports!
I received over 250 responses from friends and strangers alike; however, one letter in particular quite literally changed the course of my life. With no return address and signed simply "Billy," this semi-anonymous note was written by a boy from my hometown -- one currently attending my very same high school. The letter was a cry for help, detailing this boy's personal struggle with his sexuality and the sadness it has created in his life: "I wish I had a friend like you in my life right now ... I do not have a family that loves me ... I am disappearing."
After reading Billy's letter, I soon realized that my "It Gets Better" cartoon was just the beginning of a greater story I was meant to tell. Although good-humored and with a heartwarming conclusion, the video did not speak my truth nor tell my real story. It did not detail what really happened; it was a lie.
In reality, Darren never apologized. The two of us went on to high school together but never spoke a single word to each other for four years. I graduated second in my class and was president of multiple extracurricular clubs. Darren, on the other hand, had turned to drugs and was suspended and arrested on more than one occasion. We were both victims of high school bullying, yet we had each dealt with it in our own way -- one for the better and the other for the worse.
On the day before graduation I decided to write my former best friend a letter. I made it clear that I did not wish to rehash the past, that I wasn't "hitting" on Darren -- but to let him know that if he ever needed to talk, Darren could count on me. A year and a half passed without any communication. Then one day I received word that he had called my family's home. The message was simple: "Michael, it's Darren. Please call me."
I never returned the call. Nine days later, Darren killed himself.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/v/xZsid8fbuMI?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1 site_id=25879312]
After receiving Billy's letter, I now feel a personal responsibility to
both Billy and Darren -- and even myself -- to effect change on a large and
sweeping scale, attacking the problem of anti-LGBTQ bullying and teen
suicide head on and without reservation. But I had to ask myself, How
would I, one barely C-list gay, accomplish such a lofty goal?
Thus the documentary For Billy
art and activism -- that is the singular way that I know how to attract
attention, breed awareness, and thus create change. For Billy
chronicle my return home to the suburban town of Wheeling, Ill., to
explore the city's current culture of high school bullying
and student suicide -- sadly, Darren has not been the first or last to
take his life in the area. Through community grassroots interactions, I
will attempt to atone for the past while showing people
like Billy that not only does it get better, but we get better.
partnership with Wheeling High School, those of us making For Billy
will work directly
with the school's students to shed light on homophobia and antigay bullying. LGBTQ
topics have never been openly discussed with the student body before, and
we will document the process and the response -- both good and bad.
More than 2,000 people from Wheeling have agreed to write their very own "Billy letter," thus
birthing the Write Now Campaign. Simply: "How are you feeling ... right now,
at this very moment? This is your chance to get those feelings out
of your heart and down on paper -- anonymously. Express yourself -- how
you feel, who you love, what you fear -- and tell the world that no one
is alone in what they are feeling. Please take a moment and Write Now.
Los Angeles artists, and Chicago-based celebrities will then use these letters to
create content for a large-scale theatrical event, simply titled B.
(And yes, some A-list, silver screen Hollywooders have come on board,
although we can't reveal just who yet.) Through spoken word, poetry,
dance, original music, and monologues, the people of Wheeling
will create original works via these letters and tell each other's
stories -- showing that their similarities trump their differences and,
in fact, it does get better.
I personally invite you, through
this column and also our website
, to follow
us as we embark on this journey -- supporting us with donations,
sending us your advice, and following our ups and downs as we move forward. Yes, there have been many ups: Suze Orman contacting us about the
project, the International Documentary Association supporting us, the
Write Now Campaign exploding with 100 letters and counting! But there
have also been many downs: unthinkable pieces of hate mail
anonymous phone calls, and even a toilet-papering attack on my parents'
home in Wheeling.
But most important, I ask for your emotional support. When someone commits suicide, people talk only about the person who died. No one ever talks about those left behind. Darren left me behind, and I hate him for it, because I feel like it's my fault. I'm the one left to live with the guilt. I'm filled with anger and sadness, and I have no way of getting those emotions out of my heart -- except maybe, just maybe, through this documentary.
I know Darren and Billy are two different people, but something in Billy's letter spoke to me. If I can do this, if I can help one person, I think I can forgive myself. I think I can finally say, "Darren, I'm sorry."
I look forward to hearing each and every one of your stories and welcoming all of you into my creative world. This is the most important project I've ever taken on, and I need my LGBTQ family more than ever.
This is truly a worthy and timely subject -- for our nation, for our community, and For Billy.
See you in two weeks.
P.S. Click here
to find out how you can support the filming of For Billy.