. . . Chris Colfer aka Kurt.)
You have to have been living under a rock, or far from internet-land, not to be aware of the Dan Savage “It gets better” campaign. It’s designed to address the issue of gay teen suicides. The accompanying text goes something like this:
“It’s been decided. On October 20th, 2010, we will wear purple in honour of the 6 gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/months due to homophobic abuse in their homes at their schools. Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality. Please wear purple on October 20th. Tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbours and schools”.
I must confess that this message didn’t exactly score an A with me at first sight. I tried to ignore the horrible syntax and that I don’t like being told “it’s been decided “ by people whose understanding of inclusivity in decision-making is not the same as mine. True, the sentiments expressed in the video (see below) are well based. There are parts of Dan and BF’s message I really like. Other parts I don’t. I don’t, for instance, like the fact that the duo oozes privilege. I don’t like that the duo doesn’t acknowledge the importance of work already being done by youth themselves. I don’t like the smugness. “You can have our life if only you hold on” is a message that is, frankly, just not true for many. Maybe you’re not white, middle class and have money, and never will be any of those things.
Having said all that, do a search of YouTube and you’ll find scores of "it gets better" videos from regular folks who do a much better job at driving home the message than these two.
Truth is, the battle against homophobic bullying, like the battle against HIV-based stigma, is not won just like that. In fact "it gets better” only if we do more than post memes, or wear purple. It gets better if we come out to our parents, our friends, people we know. That is how we make a huge dint both in HIV-related stigma (by declaring our poz-ness to the world) and by the same token, in defusing homophobic behaviour towards teens.
What else needs to be done? Recognizing that bullying of gay teens is a symptom of the societal homophobia that hurts all of us, we need to outlaw the homophobic, sexist trash talk that religious bigots routinely put out. Let’s censure that, in legislation, if necessary, by making the definition of hate crimes broader, and if that include charging religious leaders, so be it. Let’s, for instance, call the Pope what he is – a homophobic, sexist bigot who some would argue should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, not welcomed and fawned over by heads of state. Finger the right wing too; finger in particular the politicians who want to legislate homosexuality back to something that’s abnormal. Give them hell.
To that mix you need to add measures addressed specifically to address gay teen bullying. The “it gets better” campaign is a good start; let’s also expand anti-bullying initiatives. They are mandated in Ontario schools; why aren’t they obligatory in the States? Let’s promote queer/straight alliances in schools. They work. Let’s not forget too that queer youth are already doing some of this work, and doing it well. Let’s realize that youth themselves are as promising agents of change as middle class privileged gay men like Dan and BF who vacation in Paris and promise you can too, if you just hang in there. So, yep, support organizations that support youth. Like this one and this one.
Like HIV prevention messaging where we try many approaches simultaneously, the “it gets better:”campaign is one weapon in the arsenal we employ to combat homophobia directed against teens. I’m suggesting there are other potentially more powerful tools.
Let's look at Glee, a show which must surely have a HUGE teen audience, not to mention watched by millions of discriminating adults like – err -- me. It’s ironic that while all this Dan Savage debate is swirling around us, a young gay man called Chris Colfer is making waves. Not only making waves but, I suspect, making gay teen youth sit up and listen, and perhaps find a role model.
Who is Chris Colfer? For those who don’t follow Glee (are you crazy or what?) Chris Colfer, gay in real life, plays Kurt, an uber-flambouyant student gayer than Ru Paul whose homosexuality has fuelled some of the show’s best and most talked about episodes. This week’s Grilled Cheesus episode – the phrase entered the popular lexicon fast as light - drew a ton of accolades. In it, Kurt rejects the church because it rejects him. It’s hard not to notice that Kurt, who has survived a ton of homophobic bullying in previous episodes, is one of the strongest, most resilient characters on the show. He’s out, he’s queer, he’s fabulous, and he doesn’t take shit from anybody. He is, in short, a great role model.
He also reaches a weekly audience that Dan Savage can only dream of. He’s also bigger on iTunes than the Beatles.
I’ll wager that Kurt has done more – way, way more – for the empowerment of gay kids than Dan Savage and BF will ever do. I’ll wager that Kurt has made more teen kids feel better about themselves than Dan Savage and BF will ever do. I’ll wager that Kurt has become way more of a role model for gay teens than Dan Savage and BF will ever be.
Not that messages like Dan's aren’t worthwhile. They will help some kids some of the time. But let’s not go (lady) gaga over the “it gets better” campaign. The bottom line is that “it gets better” is indeed something that queer youth needs to hear. But there are other potentially more effective strategies out there that might reduce teen suicides.
So . . If I have to choose between two messages – one asserting "it gets better” and one suggesting kids watch Glee every week, and Kurt in particular, I pick Glee. Sorry Dan. Sorry BF.