By: Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, ABD
It’s not every day that anyone with a video camera can participate in an international advocacy and intervention project, especially one that catches on so fast that President Obama added his own video to the collection merely a month after it began. The President joins Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton; Rep. Nancy Pelosi; Adam Lambert; Anne Hathaway; Colin Farrell; Matthew Morrison of Glee; Joe Jonas; Joel Madden; Ke$ha; Sarah Silverman; Tim Gunn; Ellen DeGeneres; Suze Orman; the staffs of the Gap, Google, and Facebook; the Broadway community; and more than 6,000 others who have created videos that have been watched more than 15 million times (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/). They all want to share the same message with LGBT youth: It Gets Better.
Columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better project, found online at http://www.itgetsbetter.org and http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject, in September 2010. In the wake of numerous LGBT suicides, Dan wanted to bring messages of support directly to LGBT youth. The project grew out of his frustration watching LGBT youth suffer the same kind of bullying he had experienced in high school and struggling to find an outlet that would reach them directly. Dan made a YouTube video with his partner, in which they describe their experiences being bullied and harassed for being gay, how they coped, how they came to accept and celebrate their sexuality, and how they found happiness they never dreamed existed when they were young (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IcVyvg2Qlo).
Such experiences were echoed by a clinical instructor and Ph.D. student who notes, “This is hard to admit, but the reason I haven’t used the It Gets Better videos in my class is because it is a difficult (emotional, painful) thing for me to watch.” However, despite challenges, others were able to watch the It Gets Better videos. Amanda Jones, MSW, a practicing social worker from Binghamton, NY, says, “I saw the first YouTube with Dan Savage and his partner, Terry, and wished that I had a project like this when I was a teenager, struggling with my sexuality and suicidal ideation.” David Brennan, Assistant Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto and a practicing social worker since 1987, adds:
If I ever did a(n) [It Gets Better] video, this might be what I put in it: I was bullied in my youth. I was bullied by my brothers, my grandmother, kids at school, and kids in the neighborhood. I tried to commit suicide several times, because I thought I was evil, sick, and not deserving of anyone’s love. From about 14-17, I thought several times that death was better than being this horrible thing called gay. But it turns out that being gay is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Being gay opened my eyes to so much about how the world is unjust, but not just for me, but for so many others. Marginalization based on race, religion, gender, age, disability, national origin, language, socioeconomic status, and many other identities is such a powerful force in human nature, that being gay has helped me to get on board to working with changing this and fighting those marginalizing and stigmatizing forces. In terms of the project...mostly, I am really inspired and impressed with it. I am impressed by how powerful, direct, passionate, and creative many of the videos are. I was very touched by the various stories. I cried. I like that there are many celebrities and politicians who have posted videos. As public figures, their words carry great weight. It is also impressive to see the array of videos. Some are from groups of people, some from couples and families. There are straight folks, LGB and T folks. Youth who have struggled with the vicious dehumanizing process of ex-gay ministries provide some powerful stories and hope for those who are trapped in that horrific and literal hell. The magic of the video project is that it brings you right into people’s homes and lives. It has an intimacy that speaks to all of us.
Word of the It Gets Better project quickly spread over social media and social networking Web platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, Dan’s newspaper column and media appearances, celebrity video appearances, and word of mouth. The interviewees for this article all suggested that these were great methods to spread word of the project to both LGBT youth and social workers.
Amanda notes that the videos should be used as part of suicide prevention and intervention programs and adds, “Whether it’s about suicide or bullying or problems with their parents, ‘It Gets Better’ is just true – every feeling changes and none lasts forever, even when it seems that it will.” David added:
I think it would be amazing if the links to these videos were posted on every conceivable Web site that social workers might use. There should be stories in the large social work newspapers across North America. Have them running interspersed on video panels throughout the school where announcements are made. Use them as a springboard for discussion about what it means to say “It Gets Better.” For those in practice, have a video-thon over a brown bag lunch one day with other folks in your department or agency. Put a tag line at the end of your e-mail signature that directs people to the Web site. Social workers can make a video and post it and highlight how social work values espouse inclusion, social justice, and human rights for LGBT folks. Youth are actively living online. They are so digitally connected that we can and should use this technology to reach out to them. I can see a young person who is feeling overwhelmed, scared or vulnerable due to harassment and bullying viewing these videos and maybe even reaching out to one of the help lines.
The It Gets Better team acknowledges that a video is not sufficient to make schools safe or solve the problem of sexual orientation harassment, but hopes the videos will speak to LGBT youth with a desperate need to be understood, help them feel supported, and possibly save a life. Some feel the project is a great start to address issues that LGBT youth face but feel it is just the beginning. As Marc Adams, Founder/Executive Director of Heartstrong (http://www.heartstrong.org/), a non-sectarian organization established to provide outreach to LGBT and other persons adversely affected by the influence of all denominations of religious educational institutions, states:
The things we are doing are great, but they aren’t really working very well. Suicide and attempts at suicide are not declining in spite of well-intentioned efforts. Some serious marketing directly to youth needs to be done. The slow dance with the religious right needs to be over and we need to do and say everything to save lives. Having online testimonials is great, but the kids that are contemplating suicide aren’t listening much, since the numbers aren’t changing. We need to make sure that the message of It Gets Better doesn’t just make all of us feel good, but rather saves the lives of those who need to find a way to believe it.
David adds, “Real change is needed to fight bullying. Schools that have zero tolerance policies are a way to start. When I was a kid and being bullied, it would have meant all the world to me if an adult had said ‘stop.’” Amanda notes that zero tolerance policies for bullying would also help, adding, “There should be no tolerance regarding anti-gay speech, and tough consequences should come to those who use those slurs in school.” In addition, some noted that many youth operate in the present and may need more immediate service and change. As a social work professor and former director of an LGBT youth organization notes:
It is geared to adolescents with a message of waiting, and that is fundamentally problematic—youth are impulsive and oriented to now. They shouldn’t have to wait. I am troubled by any message that focuses on the future for a population oriented to now, and that sends a message that they are not important enough to help right now. My issue is that bullying is way beyond youth culture and is really led by grown-ups in positions of power—churches, legislatures, referendum, school! I think it would be great for the project to have a second part that is a Get Better Now campaign—perhaps an action-oriented component for those who are moved to do something to make it better. Public awareness is important, but the activist part of me wants the campaign to encourage an active movement for change. What can we do in our communities right now to make a difference?
Echoing diversity themes also raised by David, Amanda sees It Gets Better as opening up avenues to bring up other related conversations and advance dialogue. She adds:
I think it would be great if the It Gets Better project spread to a larger group of people talking about other topics: how they coped with being a different race, having a disability, being bullied for being smaller or bigger or whatever traits someone jumped on. I think it would have helped me back then, when my acquaintance killed herself, to not want to do the same thing. If someone was there to tell me it would get better—someone like me, who I could believe—it may have helped.
In relation to the bigger picture, David also adds:
Homophobia has real implications for health and well being of LGBT folks. The resilience that those of us who have experienced bullying retain is a strength that we must exploit to bring about a world where being gay is never a reason to harass anyone.
It Gets Better has begun work to address some of these ongoing needs, recently partnering with the Trevor Project (http://www.thetrevorproject.org), a 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT youth, and GLSEN (http://www.glsen.org), the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, an organization that works to ensure safe schools for all students.
Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, is an ABD doctoral student at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. Her research interests include the role of technology in social work, the effects of information communications technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet and e-mail, poverty and class, aging, social informatics, socioeconomic development, public policy, and community practice. Karen is the chief editor and founder of EditMyManuscript.com, providing manuscript editing services to students, faculty, and other social work professionals. Her Web site is http://www.karenzgoda.org. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/karenzgoda.