Saturday, November 6, 2010

Redefine Happiness

MeShell Ndegeocello was there before, if not first. This video is from 1996. Bronski Beat, of course, was there a decade earlier. (This post is actually from about two weeks ago, but I fiddled with it and am posting it now.)

Some people I know are a bit excited because President Obama posted a video to the It Gets Better Project channel at Youtube. (First link is to the White House website, which includes the video, a transcript, and some links. Second is to YouTube, including some especially foul comments by bigots. Read them so you don't forget what we're up against.) I'm harder to please, I guess. A bit more honesty would help. ("And when you get older, I'll still be working to keep you out of the military, or kick you out if you get in anyway, while pretending to abolish Don't Ask Don't Tell!") But I know that would be too much to expect from a sitting President.

I do recognize that this video, though trivial in itself, will be seized on by bigots and inflated out of all proportion, which means that it took a small amount of political courage for Obama to do it. On the other hand, despite Obama's trademark sanctimonious gasbaggery ("As a parent of two daughters, it breaks my heart, despite my own role in killing many children in foreign countries -- but I'm not worried, because I'm the one with the predator drones!"), it may well be that some kids will be heartened by the fact that the President of the United States ascended the bully pulpit for a few minutes, and feel better about themselves and their prospects. If so, then the gesture isn't useless, but that won't justify overrating it either. (Does it tell us anything that Secretary of State Clinton also posted a video to the channel, a day or two before Obama?)

I've felt uneasy about the It Gets Better Project from the start, when Dan Savage announced it in his advice column. I understand his reasoning: he can and does speak on college campuses, but not in the schools, where bigots still have veto, so it's important to find ways to communicate with gay youth. Because of my generation I probably underestimate just how visible, and normal as a means of communication, Youtube is to schoolkids. The idea of having gay adults make videos in which they describe their own survival has intuitive appeal. I don't think that the Project is bad in itself.

But we won't know for years to come what impact the Project has actually had, or how to measure it. Not until these silent sufferers grow up and come out will we start hearing how many of them were reassured by the videos. There's a certain amount of hubris in seeing and presenting yourself as something like a role model, too; for every kid who feels reassured by Savage and his boyfriend telling their stories, there's bound to be another who will be repelled by them. Any adult is likely to encounter that kind of reaction from the young.

But this commenter on Alison Bechdel's blog crystallized my reservations for me.
At first I was thrilled with the “It Gets Better” effort. Then I started thinking that if I were stuck in a deep pit with three snarling dogs and someone walked by and yelled down to me, “Hey, only six more months in the pit. Afterward, it gets better!” I would not be comforted.

What can we do to make bullied students lives better next week, not next year? Not two or five years down the line? I’d love to hear survival strategies from current high school and middle school students.
It reminded me of something Jennifer Terry wrote in An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago, 1999, p. 396).
Among those gay men who are economically and socially powerful in the world, conceding that nature makes them gay is apparently less damaging than it might seem to working-class gay teenagers. A social worker who works with gay suicidal teens recently remarked that the biology-is-destiny line can be deadly. Thinking they are ‘afflicted’ with homosexual desire as a kind of disease or biological defect rather than thinking of it as a desire they somehow choose is, for many gay teenagers, one more reason to commit suicide rather than to live in a world so hostile to their desires.
I'd only quibble that so many working-class people also believe they were born gay; it's not an exclusively elite notion.

One thing that strengthens my unease is this exchange from a New York Times interview with Savage:
Q. Have you heard from any teenagers yet since posting the first video this week?

A. I’ve heard from bunches. I’ve gotten 3,000 e-mails in the first 24 hours. The ones that are really moving are the ones from straight kids who are telling me that they are e-mailing the link to their picked-on gay classmates and friends who need to see it.
Oh, really? The straight kids are the ones who move him most? I haven't been scouring the web for discussion of It Gets Better, but I've looked at some of it, and have yet to see one person who can point to a GLBT kid who says they were helped by these videos. Most of it has been people gushing about how wonderful the idea is, how it's bound to help, and the rest has been the minority of dissenters with reservations. (Band of Thebes wondered this weekend about four "divas" who've done pro-gay songs and videos and in some cases contributed to It Gets Better: "why these singers are women, and white, and why they always show their support of gay men rather than lesbians." Except that Katy Perry, one of the lot, did record a song about kissing a girl.)

Savage told the interviewer right after the Project's inception, "I don’t want it to be 'lifestyles of the gay and fabulous.' What we want to say to kids is that if you don’t win the economic lottery, and most people don’t, you can have a good and decent and fun life that brings love." I wonder how well that has been borne out. (Of course we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, so the big names who've posted to the Project get attention from gay and straight media alike.) More recently, the BBC reported:

The It Gets Better project has been criticised by some teachers for containing messages from adult film stars, drag queens and transvestites, which they consider too raunchy for young people.

Savage scoffs at those claims, saying young people hear far worse things on TV and from their friends. And besides, he says, it is his project.

I'm still nervous about what I see as the glamorization and romanticizing of suicide by youth, especially gay youth.

One night several years ago I was in a local gay male chat room. A guy logged in who said he was an Emergency Medical Technician, and he'd had a rough evening: he'd been called to help clean up someone who'd jumped to his death off one of the taller classroom buildings on campus. No one seemed very affected by this. Then a kid in his late teens typed: "I've thought of killing myself sometimes..." and the room perked up. Everybody except me and the EMT was stroking him (verbally and virtually). One guy typed that wanting to kill yourself was a reasonable reaction to being gay -- not to being bullied for being gay, mind you, just to being gay. It reminded me of the scene in Heathers where the high school guidance counselor, having discovered that Winona Ryder has not committed suicide after all, tells her, "We need to talk. Whether or not to kill yourself is the most important decision a teenager can make." It went on like that for a while.

Finally the kid, preening under all the attention, said something that prompted me to say that I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who commit suicide, leaving a mess for other people like the EMT (forgotten by now by everyone but me) to clean up. Yeah? retorted the kid. When I'm dead, you'll be sorry, and I'll be laughing! No you won't, I told him, you'll be dead, and I'll be laughing, even though you won't be able to hear me. One of the other participants called me an asshole. It was only later, when it was too late, that I thought of the right word for him: enabler.

It may not be particularly rational, but that's the way it works. Every time my university has won or come close to winning a sports championship, the student paper runs a story begging people not to celebrate by stealing the bronze dolphins in the big fountain on campus. And every time, someone steals them, explaining when caught that they thought they were supposed to steal them. In a way they're right. And that always haunts me when I see people talking up gay teen suicide. Teenagers in general have a penchant for drama, for Liebestod, and I'm not sure what can be done for gay kids being tortured by their peers and teachers and parents, but I don't think that talking about the suicides of a few is going to help the many very much.

What will help them is another matter. As Dan Savage said, correctly, adults who might help suffering gay kids are kept away from them by bigots. I won't say "Instead of," because I don't think yet that the It Gets Better project is a bad idea, but in addition to It Gets Better, all people of good will need to think about ways to make things better for those kids now. There are a lot of adults out there who like seeing non-conformist kids bullied, beaten up, and dead. It's pretty clear that school administrations, teachers, and parents have stood idly by while kids were beaten up by their peers. That makes them accessories to the crime, and they should be treated as such. I don't believe they are a majority of adults, but even if they are, the rest of us need to start challenging and blocking the adults who collaborate with and support the torture of queer kids.