COMMENTARY: This morning, I was greeted with an e-mail subject line every writer has ever wished for: "David Michael, this is your book." For a moment, I thought that I must have, in an act of blind passion, finally finished my thesis novel, found an agent, secured a publishing deal, and reviewed galley after galley...and here it was -- my book! At long last. And then about .002 seconds later, I realized, oh, someone's selling me something.
"Tomorrow," the e-mail read, "the book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living goes on sale wherever books are sold. It includes essays and new material from more than 100 contributors, including celebrities, religious leaders, politicians, parents, educators, youth just out of high school, and many more."
One part of me thought, this is great. Where was this book when I was in high school?
The other part of me thought, this is not my book. I never came out because I was never in to begin with. I'm still coping with bullying and the physical scars of my adolescent years. And a life worth living, well...I am one month from turning 33 years old and on my best days I do think my life is worth living; on most days, I don't.
A few weeks ago, I was invited, as a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, to attend an event called Straight Talk put on by a group I'd never heard of, dot 429. It looked like an exciting event, with panelists to include Dan Choi, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Andy Cohen, Simon Doonan, and former Washington, D.C. Advocate correspondent Kerry Eleveld. I really wanted to go, but the event was in New York City, and I live in Washington, D.C. I have an unrelated day job and I am no longer being paid for LGBT-related freelance writing, so it seemed like an unreasonable expense. I asked an online-only acquaintance for advice; the modelesque early 20-something works for a major LGBT lobbying group in the District -- he calls himself a "professional gay." Should I go? I asked. His advice: Stay local. You're not part of the in crowd, and no one will talk to you. It would be embarrassing, expensive, and exhausting.
I took a chance and went anyway, taking the 7:00 a.m. Acela and returning to D.C. at midnight. At the (again, online) urging of a journalist whose career I admire greatly, I made a great effort to overcome my extreme social anxiety and talk to people. It was a good Thursday. Three days later, without much thought, I downed (small) handful after (small) handful of Benadryl, Tylenol PM, Dramamine, and hydrocodone leftover from the dentist, followed by quarter bottle of triple sec. The next morning was miserable, but I woke up with the same thought I have every time I wake up: not another morning.
This is a private melodrama that I've repeated too many times in my little studio apartment where I spend nearly all my time alone. But there is a point. I live in the gayest neighborhood in one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, and I don't know a soul outside of work and some friends from graduate school. I have tried to meet people, primarily online, but nearly all dismiss me immediately after running through the checklist: If anyone can get past the fact that I am over 30, then they want to know if I am straight-acting (no), if I am out (yes), if I am athletic (kind of?), if I like football (uh, no). If I pass muster, a person might meet me here or there--but they never meet me more than twice. Why? It could be my skin--my face is pocked and marred with acne scars. It could be my mannerisms--I'm gay and I don't try to butch it up. I am even willing to accept that it could be my attitude--I'm snarkastic and always on the defense.
And in the back of my mind, I always have visions that have haunted me since I was a teenager: sometimes I'm just falling asleep with a bottle of pills; sometimes I'm slicing deeply and cleanly through my wrist; over the past year, the picture has involved me leaning gingerly over the edge of my apartment building.
In late summer of 2010, the American news media reported a string of suicides stemming from bullying. Several young gay men ended their lives because of harassment at school, in college, online. Author Dan Savage sent out a clarion call to the gay world by starting a campaign called "It Gets Better," in which gay people were invited to submit videos describing how they were tortured in their younger years, but how everything is better for them today.
The first video, front and center, is called "IT GETS BETTER - GARETH THOMAS.MOV." I push play. An older man (in gay terms--more on this later) with a shaved head is describing his toughness, his rugby-playerness, and his gayness. He's busting out of his T-shirt; his shoulders appear to span three feet, and his upper arms are at least as large as my thighs. A trip to the site's "About" section takes me to a short letter with a bio of sex columnist Dan Savage, followed by a video of Savage with his partner, Terry Miller. Play.
Dan: "High school was bad. I was Catholic, went to Catholic high school, Catholic boy's school. My dad was a Catholic deacon, my mom was a Catholic lay minister. My family was very Catholic and there were no gay people in my family and no openly gay people in my school. But I was picked on because I, you know, liked musicals and was obviously gay and some kids didn't like that, and I was openly harassed."
Terry: "My school was pretty miserable. I lived in Spokane, Washington, which is a mid-sized town with a small-town mentality. And I was picked on mercilessly in school. People were cruel to me. I was bullied a lot, thrown against walls and lockers and windows, stuffed into bathroom stalls, people shit on my car, people scratched my car, broke my windows. My parents went in once to talk to administrators about the harassment I was getting at school and they basically said, "if you look that way, walk that way, talk that way, act that way, then there's nothing we can do to help your son."
Going by Terry Miller's physical appearance, he and I are probably relatively close in age, although I probably look older (or simply not as well maintained). We are certainly close in our high-school experiences; everything he said--except the shat-upon car--happened to me, too.
"Honestly, everything changed the day after high school ended," Miller says in the video. Also true for me. But perhaps that's where the similarities end.
Miller and Savage both talk a certain way--there's a 'gay' lilt to their voices, a certain cadence that is particular to gay men. It's more of a 1980s Valley Girl cliche than the usually depicted cliche of a sassy lisp and a loosely flapping wrist and rolling eyes--it sounds something like: "Honestly? Everything changed? The day that high school ended." They both also look a certain way. Particularly Miller: Dan Savage looks "older," one might say; he is graying at his temples, anyway. He's an attractive, distinguished-looking man. He and partner Miller are both seated in the video at a restaurant booth (It looks like it could be an Outback Steakhouse), elbows propped on the wood slab table, with highball glasses and drink stirrers in front of them. Miller's glass is empty; Savage's is full--probably vodka and tonic or gin and tonic from the looks of the glass. Both men are wearing tight-fitting T-shirts, and both men, like the first one on the It Gets Better site, are practically busting out of them. Miller's biceps are as big as his thick neck, cabled with tightly wound veins. His hair is bleached and floppy--it would suit an English schoolboy well.
The message of the It Gets Better videos is clear and simple: Youth sucks for most gay people--it can be utterly unbearable and feel like a dead end--but this changes when you get out of high school; it gets better. Those are the words. It is hard to ignore the other language, though--the visual gay vernacular of hypermuscular, pretty-faced men. That is a message that is being conveyed silently to young gay people: People will treat you better later on in life, and you'll look better and feel better, and you will be one of the cool kids. Or at least one of the hot kids.
As a desperate kid in middle school, seriously overweight with new stretch marks and monstrous colonies of acne taking over the surface of my body every day, I remember making a willful choice to believe in the "Milk: It does a body good" commercials, in which the young, gawky guy sees his future self--a guy who inevitably, regardless of the actors in the commercial--looked a lot like Miller, just in a more jock-y, less gay version. I thought, OK, you can change your life, maybe, David. You can at least try. You have to try.
And I did, but only as far as reality would let me. In a lot of ways, the scars won out--scars that cannot be erased with surgery or lasers or strong will.
During college, I made some headway, mostly with lesbians. I joined my university's Pride group, but most of the guys literally would not talk to me. About a year ago, one of those guys sent me a friend request on Facebook (via a mutual friend), telling me that he had read my profile and saw my website, and that he never realized how interesting and creative I am. I pointed out (bitterly, I admit) that he had never uttered a word to me while we were in school and he admitted that he wasn't attracted to me and, therefore, didn't want to lead me on by, you know, treating me like a human being. For the most part, that has been the general attitude I've experienced since high school, as well; I'm good for a hookup, but certainly not relationship, or even friend, material.
I'm trying again. I don't yet have a renewed attitude toward life, but I have new prescriptions for two antidepressants and one anti-panic medication that are supposed to at least numb the pain and quiet the thoughts. Ironically, since I've begun this therapy, I've also begun to lash out irrationally at people who don't deserve it. I'm just bitter and angry. I've been waiting for so long for things to get better. By now, there's no pill I can take and no book I can read that will convince me things will get better on their own with time and patience.
I love Savage's idea. But let's be honest: some things get better, and some things you never really get over. So before we send out an unrealistic message that everything's rainbows and unicorns after high school, let's get real.
And if we are being real, then let's go all the way. I can't speak for the entire LGBTQA(etc.) community, but it has been my experience that adult gay men can have a tendency to act just like those bullies in high school--maybe not physically, but the emotional effects can be the same. I thought that it would get better by now. Overall, LGBT civil rights have come a tremendously long way since I was in high school in the mid-1990s. But if adult gay men don't change their attitudes and try to accept one another as valuable human beings and not a compilation of items to be checked off a list, then the kids who are buying into the It Gets Better line are in for a rude awakening. Because the truth is, it's a long, long wait.