4 min

How It Gets Better amounts to talking with a corpse in your mouth

Savage's advice is irresponsible neglect

Dan Savage (right) with his husband, Terry Miller, in their It Gets Better viral video.

Fuelled by a series of recent media reports, I found myself, like many others, reacting with deep sadness and a sense of rage at the tragic loss of queer, trans or questioning children and youth. As is well known, completed suicides are but a smaller proportion of those with suicidal feelings and acute distress that signal lives of quiet desperation and a loss of hope. An inability for many young queers to imagine life-sustaining futures, to carve out a measure of succour in an unremitting context of degradation and solitude for many, is a disastrous consequence of the manifold forms of soul-destroying practices that heterosexism (as well as gender-based and racial harassment) levers onto the lives of young people today. And as many queer adults can attest, the degradations and isolation in our own past, for those of us who have been able to cultivate more supportive environments, forms an intimate second skin of feelings and memories.

The recent social media campaign, It Gets Better by commentator Dan Savage, although well intentioned, merely perpetuates alienation, shifts responsibility onto the victims of harassment while offering an anemic individualistic vision of the good life for young queers. Although some may find a measure of comfort in this campaign, relaying clichéd messages like “Tough it out” and “Living well is the best revenge” irresponsibly sidesteps efforts to move toward the changes that are necessary to make queer children and youths’ lives more sustainable and livable in the present. Muscular platitudes emerging from a position of privilege radically obscures the complex environments that youth must negotiate daily. Savage’s projection of a future normal erases queer and trans youths’ pain in the present, neglects their stories of survival and resistance, and ultimately participates in the larger culture’s wish to deny livable space for young queer and trans lives.

The self-satisfied, even smug, advice on offer in the It Gets Better campaign epitomizes a prevailing ethos of a new gay and lesbian parental legitimacy — prudent, respectable and safe — that remains utterly unchallenging to the systemic institutional practices and norms that continue to inform schools as dangerous places for many young people. Savage’s advice amounts to irresponsible neglect: individual bullies and systemic inequalities and exclusions that form the context of that violence are left undisturbed.

In a popular counter-cultural text from the 1960s, Growing Up Absurd, radical educationalist and queer anarchist Paul Goodman wrote that young people are living in a compulsory triad of school, work and family relations that systematically gives a lie to their own experiences. Versions of the “good life” are broadcast and reproduced through institutions and social practices with the cooperation of many adults, especially in positions of authority, acting as key relays for the messages. Queer and gender-described youths’ distress is not a new phenomenon; in fact, many queer and trans adults can readily attest to this fact. I certainly can. The problem arises when we fail to appreciate how our enforced distance as queer adults from the actual lived experiences of young queers influences how the problem is understood and the resulting solutions enacted.

How childhood is envisioned is often made as a litmus test for responsible citizenship today, with normative parent and family values largely held up as standard-bearers of respectability. The scrutiny queer parents undoubtedly feel as relatively new entrants into the scene of child-raising, often results in an obsessive enforcement of the normal. This reality is coiled inside another cultural move where increasingly it is in the contestations over childhood and youth where queer oppression is dramatically clinched. These battles over the meanings of childhood are at once the site of the most vocal and cynical moves that anti-gay opponents can make, and yet it remains one of the most turgid sites of queer resistance, marked by many silences, acquiescence and fear.

A recent Egale Canada National Climate Survey on homophobia and transphobia in Canadian schools documents the endemic environment of harassment faced by queer and trans teens. The study reveals that 60 percent of queer teens face some kind of homophobic harassment in schools, with the figure climbing to 90 percent for trans-identified teens. This study also outlines how school administrators and teachers consistently fail to address homophobic harassment even when policies are in place to fight it. Policies and programs that do exist have often been brought into existence through the work of students themselves allied with sympathetic teachers. Although the existence of gay-straight alliances (GSA), curricula reform, and a human-rights approach to anti-homophobia education is a much-needed, albeit still precarious, effort where they do exist, larger systems of exclusions and norms continue to produce the queer and trans teens’ lives as marginal and expendable.

A recent dramatic turnabout by Dalton McGuinty over progressive sex education curricula reform in Ontario illustrates how bullies also operate in the institutional arena. The religious social conservative dissent to the expansion of school boards’ anti-homophobia campaigns, the barriers students face organizing GSAs, the contraction of equity education funding at the board level, and the constant fear over provoking conservative parents’ ire all demand concerted action by queer adults, youth and allies.

Moving along the path to queer resistance and survival for youth means learning from the direct and present experiences of queer and trans youth today. Uncovering the multiple ways that youth are made to be marginal, are silenced and yet also practise forms of resistance reveals that it doesn’t always “get better,” as contributors to the Kicked Out anthology, edited by Sassafras Lowrey, make plain. To pretend otherwise is to erect tombstones as navigational outposts for queer youth today. It is to speak with a corpse in our mouth. Counselling queer youth to wait transfixes us in its privileged gaze of safety and respectability, while ignoring the systemic reproduction of racism, gender violence, homophobia and poverty that claims the lives of young people in cities worldwide by suicide, violence or neglect. Since young people exist in compulsory families and schooling that are largely homophobic, fundamental social change involves moving toward greater self-determination for youth coupled with innovative alliances with chosen adults. For instance, a concerted campaign to create safe-houses for queer and trans youth escaping violence would face a wall of homophobic reactions. Since, in a culture where “stranger danger” is played at maximum volume, deeply entrenched homophobic norms continue to view queer youth and adult alliances with deep suspicion. Leaving these assumptions unquestioned undermines social change efforts and the crucial capacities for solidarity and struggle, practices that have been, and continue to be, led by youth in their schools and communities.

This melodrama of loss and its resulting grief and anger tends to trap queer adults in our own imaginative relation to our own gendered queer past. The present experiences of young queers are overridden. In remembering our own past, be it one of pain, fear, anxiety or one of pleasure and exploration, let us not forget the crucial spaces and moments, the “unauthorized” and undocumented pathways where we may have found some comfort and support. And then we can perhaps imagine other possibilities for queer and trans youth, and become true allies in the struggle, that give the lie to these redemptive narratives of the norm.