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It Gets Better:

It Gets Better:

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When gay Los Angeles writer Michael Anthony created his It Gets Better video, he didn't think much would come from it -- until he received an anonymous letter in the mail. With no return address and signed simply "Billy," it was a cry for help detailing one boy's painful struggle with his sexuality and the unimaginable high school bullying he regularly endured in Wheeling, Ill. - a suburb of Chicago and also Michael Anthony's hometown. For Billy documents Michael Anthony's return to Illinois to explore LGBTQ bullying in the Midwest and to combat homophobia through art and activism -- while attempting to rectify a painful mistake he made 10 years ago.

***

A few days ago, I changed my Facebook status: "Michael Anthony has already grown more in 2011 than he has in 2010 ... or 2009 for that matter!" And truer words have never been typed. Our For Billy antibullying documentary project is less than one month along, and it has already drawn the attention of my entire hometown -- kicking up an intense dust cloud of emotions ranging from all-out applause to utter condemnation.

Other students have followed Billy's lead and started writing me, telling me their own bullying stories. Alex*, a Latin-American immigrant: "All my life I [have] struggled ... the point is how long will I be able to handle it." Kerry*, an honors student: "The way that kids treat others because they are different eats me up [and] makes me ill ... I'm glad they ignore me." Christian*, an "all-seasons jock": "My brother is gay and nothing they said seemed to bother him. So they turned on me and it broke me ... I can't tell you how many [fellow students] I've hurt for no reason, just to feel stronger. It doesn't even make sense."

I keep these letters tacked up on my office wall. As the hate mail rolls in (and oh, yes, the hate mail is rolling in!), they calm me; they give me a sense of purpose. They are the physical manifestation of the realization that I am no longer speaking for myself; I'm speaking for the students in my hometown who have gone silently troubled. Seeing these letters inspire me, and I need that. Because when you open up an e-mail from "Jesus Christ" that tells you "you are promoting a satanic agenda to our children. and children are nothing more than JESUS'S baby angles," a little inspiration truly goes a long way.

Along with drumming up drama, we've gone into full-fledged fund-raising mode. Last week, the For Billy team threw a Benefactors for Billy soiree at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian's Renberg Theatre -- and it was a blast, although fiscally on the low end of the spectrum. Financially speaking, we have so much farther to go -- so, so, so much farther to go. Moving an entire production team to a small Midwestern town is a daunting undertaking, to say the least. So we humbly and thankfully ask you to log on to the page for our donations campaign, open your wallets as much as possible, and share the link with each and every one of your social media friends. We recently garnered fiscal sponsorship from the International Documentary Association, so everything you give is tax-deductible.

OK, OK; I'll step off my Suze Orman soapbox now ...

While I'm making this documentary for all of the Billys, Alexs, Kerrys, Christians, and Michael Anthonys in my hometown, I am also doing this to atone a part of my past: the suicide of a former best friend, Darren -- a loss for which I feel personally responsible. What started as an abstract idea (the loss of a childhood friend) has grown into an emotional reality for not only myself but for a large collective of people. Darren had a wonderful family, devoted friends, and many who loved him.

I've never professed to know Darren in his final years -- his secrets, his reasons for doing what he did. A part of this documentary is meant to uncover this, so I am able to come to terms with the loss of him. Last week I had the pleasure of an hour-long conversation with his sister via cell phone. She opened her heart to me and shared many stories, and she listened to mine. Darren's history is far more complicated than I could ever have imagined, and hearing that ripped my heart from my chest and yet brought me a strange sense of determination to go onward.

Darren was not a burnout, not a drug addict. He was not a cliche; he was anything but -- an artist, a best friend, a brother, a thinker, someone who feels deeply. Darren's sister "reintroduced" me to a three-dimensional friend whose essence I've long and unknowingly forgotten. Thank you, "Sis." You gave me the most important hour of the past month.

As she later wrote me: "Michael, I just want to thank you for our conversation. Most importantly, thank you for listening. I think this journey you are taking is a great one. I back you 100%. This story brought back many memories and a ton of emotions. Most of all it brought to me people that were important to Darren. Including you. I have wanted to reconnect with my brother's past for so long. I just didn't know how. You made that possible. Thank you. I know in my heart that my brother is truly sorry for what he did. I hope you think of his phone call to you as his apology. If Darren was here today he would have wanted to be a part of this project. He would have helped you tell your story. He also would have joked and told you that being his best friend, you should have known that Reba wasn't the way to his heart. Silly boy, you know my brother didn't listen to country. Thanks again for listening and I wish you all the best."

Beautiful, classy and touching in its emotional matter-of-factness. After reading this, I spent all of Saturday crying; why, I do not know. I am overwhelmed -- one minute from the love and compassion of many (like Darren's sister), the next minute by hate and anger of a few. But it's important interactions and conversations like these that make For Billy vital for myself, the town of Wheeling, and the nation at large. People are changing; people are opening up. Students are writing letters; residents are reconnecting. I am growing into the person I've long wanted to become.

No one said making a movie would be easy. In fact, many people gave me many reasons why this film in particular should not be made. But then I see those letters tacked up in my office. I could stay silent, but then I'd have to ask myself, How long would I be able to handle it?

Your generous donation, love and support are sorely needed at this time - and For Billy couldn't ask for anything more! Forty-nine days and counting; Wheeling, Ill., here we come!

*The first names of students have been changed.
Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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