When does it get better? How about now?
Don’t get me wrong — I am a fan of the It Gets Better Project. I think any attempt to get positive, supportive messages to GLBTQ youth is worthwhile, and Dan Savage and Terry Miller are to be commended for their intention and efforts. As we know, it went super-viral, and people from politicians to celebrities to everyday folks have posted videos. The message surely resonates among those of us who weathered ignorance, hatred, and feelings of helplessness during our younger days. Wouldn’t it have been easier if we’d have known that it gets better someday? The problem is that for many GLBTQ teens, “someday” is a concept that does them little good.
This is what now looks like for a lot of GLBTQ youth: being been spit on, finding death threats in your algebra book, or having your head slammed into a locker, feeling like you won’t make it to someday. So while I applaud the project, I caution that we should not let it keep us from doing more to impact the day-to-day lives of GLBTQ teens. While these positive messages are great, what they really need is for us to make better start now.
We can begin by developing a more realistic understanding of the current landscape for GLBTQ teens. In the 10 years since I started work on the first edition of my survival guide for queer teens, a lot has changed. It’s critical for those of us who care about these youth to know that while in some respects we can identify with the experiences of today’s GLBTQ teens, in many significant ways their world is very different.
Today, there is a vast spectrum of experiences, and many of them defy classic logic. Whatever assumptions we are tempted to make about urban versus rural mentality, increased exposure to positive images and portrayals of GLBTQ people in media and visible policy debates about GLBT rights have contributed to education about and increased acceptance of queer people in smaller communities in unexpected ways. It’s much more likely for gay people to be open and accepted in rural America than in decades past. Conversely, large, diverse communities are still not immune from ignorance, and GLBTQ teens still endure bullying and harassment.
Also, young people are experiencing puberty and self-identifying as GLBTQ to family and friends much earlier than before. Research from the Family Acceptance Project is showing the age at which teens come out — to themselves and others — has been dropping steadily. Some are self-aware and out at age 12 and are openly embraced by friends and family. Others experience the same protracted period of confusion or fear of coming out that has been more common historically. We are in a new world, and we all must adapt.
Another ironic fact is that increased queer visibility has actually made it harder for many teens to stay in the closet. They are less likely to have the option of invisibility given greater public awareness, which can be a double-edged sword. Many pay a price for being, or just being perceived to be, queer. According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 85% of GLBTQ teens had experienced harassment in the past year. The advent and popularity of the Internet and social networking have created a new dimension of harassment called “cyberbullying.” Last fall the media finally paid large-scale attention to GLBTQ suicides as the result of persistent harassment and bullying (which gave birth to efforts such as the It Gets Better Project).
It’s important to realize, though, that teens in general are tougher than we often give them credit for. We need to make the distinction between recognizing what queer teens are dealing with and helping them, and fostering a victim perception or mentality. For all the representations of queer teens as sad, lonely, and timid, the reality is that these young people are changing the world. Just look at the number of GLBTQ young people suing their school districts for equal rights and protections. I can’t imagine having the guts or resilience to do that at 14. There are pre-teen children with fully supportive families, which was a rarity a decade ago.
Finally, those for whom youth is in the rearview mirror could learn a lot from the current generation. They are challenging classic beliefs about gender and sexuality. Queer or straight, today’s teens are overall much less identity-focused. It’s very common for them to reject labels like “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or “transgender” and instead self-describe as something more amorphous, such as “pansexual” or “gender-queer.” Catchy hooks and sex appeal aside, one of the reasons Lady Gaga is so popular among young people is that they embrace her willingness to challenge assumptions of gender and sexuality and respond to her message of acceptance for all. As this generation comes of age, we’re going to see a glacial shift in perceptions of gender and sexuality, including a decreased focus on “what” you are, and that will create greater acceptance for all — queer or straight.
It’s critical that we as GLBT adults are visible and present in the lives of GLBTQ youth not only by taking part in broad campaigns, but also reaching out in more personal and enduring ways, such as acting as mentors — and that goes both ways. Whether it is to someone new to you or to your own niece or nephew, providing meaningful support changes a teen’s life forever. Know that it will change yours too. Not only many of my own views of queerness and gender but also my awareness of the judgments and assumptions we make about people in general have been shaped by the queer youth I’ve had the privilege of meeting.
So while the message that it will get better is a good and positive one, let’s not let the vague idea of “someday” distract us from the present. The overused “youth are our future” meme needs to be “youth are our present” if we are to move forward in a meaningful way. There is much yet that we, as advocates, can both learn and do to make better start now. For all of us.