They shove him into lockers and call him a "faggot" and a "fat ass." Some days, they grab his backpack and play keep-away from him, tossing it back and forth over his head, while taunting him and calling him names. They steal his cell phone and use it to text obscenities and threats to his best friend, who happens to be a girl. On basketball courts and soccer fields, he’s subjected to unrelenting insults and ridicule. He’s too slow. He’s too fat. He can’t throw. He’s a fat ass. He’s a faggot. Welcome to a day in the life of a gay teenager.
Most schools claim to have “strict” anti-bullying policies, but more often than not, the response to formal complaints from parents of bullied teenagers is anemic. In some very fucked-up cases, the predatory bullies are actually treated as the “victims.” Rather than being called out as the sadistic little thugs they are and punished accordingly, they get off with a slap on the wrist and a trip to the school psychologist to discuss their issues. Five minutes later, they’re on the loose again, hunting down the true victim and punching him in the stomach in the boys’ locker room, while their goon squad of buddies looks on and laughs. Lazy school administrators often have a cavalier, “out of sight, out of mind” attitude and demand “proof” of the bullying situation before actually doing anything about it. As one Seattle middle school teacher said, “We can’t stop what we can’t see.” As a result, school is a living hell, not only for gay teenagers but also for teens that are simply perceived as being gay. It happens everywhere: suburbia, rural towns and big cities alike. It is no wonder that there is a disturbing increase in suicide by teenagers who are gay or perceived as such. In the month of September alone, four such suicides made the national news. The latest involved Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously recorded Clementi having sex with another male and broadcast it on the Internet. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers, day- to- day life is a nightmare from which there is little respite. However, thanks to one man, help and hope are on the way.
Dan Savage is an author, journalist and political pundit. His wildly popular advice column “Savage Love” appears in the weekly Seattle newspaper “The Stranger.” After reading stories about the recent rash of suicides by gay teenagers, Savage realized that the perspective of gay and lesbian adults could be a potential lifesaver for young people who are being abused and bullied because of their sexual orientation. As a result, he launched the “It Gets Better Project.” The project calls for gay and lesbian people from all walks of life to create videos that tell their survival stories, talk about life beyond middle and high school and affirm that life does get better and in fact, can be quite wonderful. Savage and his husband Terry posted the first video on You Tube. It has received over a quarter of a million hits so far and has only been up for about a week. Hundreds of additional videos have been posted in response to the project. These are beautiful, wrenching and inspiring stories. In some ways, the “It Gets Better Project” is a time honored tradition applied in a modern era: elders that have gone before, telling stories of rising above adversity and sharing their experience, strength and hope with a younger generation that desperately needs it. The generous spirits that make these videos are providing a critical lifeline to gay teenagers who struggle in isolation and fear. In Savage’s words, “Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better.”
As I watched Dan and Terry’s You Tube video for the first time and saw for myself the power of the “It Gets Better Project” in action, I sat at my computer and wept. To me, Dan Savage is a hero, and I am moved by his brilliance, his fire and most of all, by his compassion. I am the mother of a young son who has endured relentless bullying and deep pain because a handful of boys at his school perceive him to be gay. I have tried in vain to help him; meetings with school administrators have been useless and "conversations" with the parents of the offenders are ugly and futile. Sometimes, it feels like my efforts only serve to make things worse. My son’s struggle gnaws and gnaws and gnaws at me. He deserves to be safe at school and free to engage his mind without fear or worry. He deserves to be who he is without apology and to live his life as he sees fit, regardless of his sexual orientation. He deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. All children and teenagers everywhere deserve this. But as long as LGBT people have to battle for fundamental civil rights, as long as our culture tolerates such nonsense as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and as long as rampaging bigots and evangelical whack jobs continue to spew hate and lies in the name of God, then “anti-bullying” laws will continue to be ineffective and meaningless. They will continue to be ineffective and meaningless because the subtext running throughout our society is that such atrocities are okay and that the lives of gay people don’t matter. At present, we are not doing right by these young people. We have let them down. As a culture and a country, we have a shitload of work to do. In the interim, Dan Savage has taken matters into his own hands and the “It Gets Better Project” gives hope to the hopeless and shines a light on better days ahead.