How to Save a Life
I fully admit that this is not mine, but I think it raises many good points about the nature of the project and its dialogue. While I certainly don’t think that the project comes from a place of ill will, it may be somewhat misguided. Or, more accurately, I think that the scope of what this whole thing is trying to do is limited and the project is unable to recognize its own bounds.
queerwatch: “Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying”
“Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying
(Ten Points, in order of appearance)
1. The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment. By aligning their bullying with the religiosity and “small-town mentality,” Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious and the rural are more bigoted.
2. The message is wrong. Sometimes it gets better– but a lot of times it doesn’t get any better. Emphasizing that things will improve upon graduation is misleading both to young folks struggling and also to people with privilege who are looking on (or looking away).
3. Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing–to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing– is a violent reassignment of guilt. Dan Savage telling kids that if they don’t survive their teenage years they’re depriving themselves? What kind of ageist garbage is that? This quietly but forcefully suggests that if you don’t survive, if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. It blames the queer for not being strong enough to get to the rosy, privileged, fantasy.
4. Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth. Arguing that in the future, the parts that hurt will be fixed, not only suggests that folks shouldn’t actually inhabit their own suffering but it also suggests that the future is more important. For a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter if your mother might come to love you and your spouse. It matters that right now she does not love you at all.
5. The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out– even when coming out isn’t a safe idea. There is no infrastructure to catch you when your family reacts poorly. There is no truly benevolent queer family, waiting to catch you, ready to sacrifice so you can thrive. For a lot of folks, coming out doesn’t only mean that your parents will promise to hate your lovers– it means violence, homelessness, abuse.
6. Bar story: vomit. It’s no coincidence that this is the first place where Dan and Terry mention queer space. Codified queer-space, restricted to 21+, w alcohol? Try again.
7. We shouldn’t be talking, we should be listening. Telling our own stories from our incredibly privileged positions, overwrites youth experience.
8. Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you. Narratives of how life was hard and but now is good, belittle lived pain, imply that a good ending is inevitable, and also undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids’ lives.
9. There is actually no path to change in this vision. Promoting the illusion that things just “get better,” enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world. Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how.
10. Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF? This is a video for rich kids for whom the only violent part of their life is high school. It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others. Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them– it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.
Plus three (with a little help from my friends)
1. When we treat campaigns like this like they’re revolutionary, they undermine all the really amazing work that the youth already does for itself. Too often in the LGBT world, we are asked to thank our brave queer activist ancestors who made the world safe for us. That does have its place. But queer youth take care of themselves. They nurture and organize and love in order to save themselves and each other. Making famous messages legible as THE messages makes youth-work look minor, haphazard, or unofficial.
2. Campaigns like this lump everyone together. It doesn’t honor or respect the individuals. It turns them into icons. It sends confusing messages that we only attend to folks when their dead– when giving care doesn’t actually take anything out of us.
3. Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting. We should help folks feel seen— by trying our hardest to see them.
It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like, is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.
No one is skittish about giving things up so that others can live comfortably. But they are unspeakably afraid of giving away something so someone can merely live. Campaigns like this exacerbate these realities by dehumanizing the people they address, turning them into a depressing mass, ready to be farmed for beautiful tragedies, and transformed into class-passing, successful adults.
How about instead of hope: change. Even if it’s really small change. Even if it doesn’t inspire anyone and no one is grateful and no one even notices. How about doing the kind of work that makes differences in peoples lives without holding them responsible—without turning them into an icon of suffering or of hope, without using their story for a soundbyte, without using their life as your proof of goodness, or of how the world is so liberal, or how it’s great to be gay. I mean money. I mean listening. I mean time. I mean giving people space that we respect and don’t enter. I mean listening to needs and finding ways to fill them.
How about instead of honoring the bravery of youth and the sadness of our times: respecting queer youth for all the incredible work they do– despite the fact that it is so rarely recognized as work, or as adequate work.
Instead of jettisoning our religion, our upbringing, our origins: a cohesive self.
Instead of narratives of suffering and then, finally, success: a celebration of the pain and pleasure throughout.
And listening– way more listening. Because telling your personal story of adversity from a place of privilege, might have a lot of applications, might be asked of you perpetually, might seem alluring because it’s so often milked from us. But it’s not the way. Saying, “I know how you feel, because I used to feel that way, and let me tell you, I don’t feel that way anymore,” doesn’t help, it hurts. You’re dwelling in the present. Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future.”
I really relate to the critical commentary on the It Gets Better project. I feel like my rural upbringing was in many ways a product of the gay rights movement settling down in urban areas and abandoning the rest of the country, without safe spaces, without infrastructure, and had this attitude of a binary—be closeted and rural or run away to the city and the university to have rights, be happy, and function. When we don’t return to our origins, to the communities we come from, we deprive those we leave behind of such richness of diversity and wisdom that come from experience and moreover, they fail to see the beautiful possibility of queer and trans rural youth who live, survive, and thrive, and make themselves ignorantly blessed to the continual struggles of these populations who deal with even more barriers and bigotry.
My town is a three-hour drive from San Francisco. I read the following on Wikipedia under the entry for Trannyshack, a SF-based drag venue regarding a tour they took: “Trannyshack also holds the annual Trannyshack Reno bus trip. Hosted by Trannyshack veteran Peaches Christ and held over Easter Weekend, participants are encouraged to dress and act as outrageously and/or provocatively as possible and imbibe alcohol heartily over the course of the weekend. During the ride from San Francisco to Reno, ***the tour bus makes several pit stops in relatively conservative places such as Placerville and Donner Pass, designed partially to get a rise out of small-town locals and unsuspecting travelers, all in real life scenes reminiscent of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert***. The culmination of the event is a special Trannyshack show at a Reno nightclub, followed by Easter Sunday brunch the next day at a local casino.”
I was so sad that I had missed this group of fabulous queens and kings…but also frustrated that they only came by my rural town of Placerville, in order to “get a rise” out of the ‘conservative’ population—what about actually networking with the rural town’s queer, trans, and allied populations, WHO EXIST, and are generally without resources and lack fabulously queer entertainment??? I would have loved them to perform for us, to have the opportunity to speak with them. To show them that queers exist beyond the city limits.
Beyond this note, I think that the argument that Dan Savage and crew are making about how queer life improves linearly with time ignores the experiences, past and present, of queer and trans elders/seniors, whose needs are not part of the mainstream gay rights movement’s agenda—are they really “better off” because they are no longer queer youth???
And for all the awesome power of the online video platform he uses, the self-replicating-ness of the video testimonial doesn’t really do much beyond go in a circle like a dog chasing it’s tail—what kind of policy change, structural change, cultural shift is he advocating? How do Dan Savage’s friends from similarly privileged backgrounds telling a similar story mobilize and organize the viewers to act?