It launched last September as a video on YouTube that quickly went viral—sex columnist and author Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller’s testimonial to LGBT kids that it gets better. The video quickly became a movement, amassing thousands of proud, brave, trusted voices in its campaign. The project came about after a series of tragic suicides, bullied kids who felt so hopeless that they took their own lives, and was met with overwhelming enthusiasm and support—more than 10,000 user-created videos generating over 30 million pageviews have been made to date.
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Since, Savage and Miller have collected several of these stories and essays into a book, It Gets Better, that they hope will be on the shelves of every high school in the country. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, David Sedaris, Michael Cunningham, Ellen DeGeneres and more are just a few of the people who have stepped up to tell LGBT kids that life does improve. Here, Savage talks to us about the book and the It Gets Better Project’s next steps.
Can you tell us more about the idea to expand the It Gets Better Project into a book?
The thought was the book would be a way to spread the message further. The website and the video campaign are the soul of It Gets Better, but the book is a way to take the website into school libraries, create kind of a culmination, almost a memoriam or memento…
Websites are wonderful and I work really hard on mine, but websites make you feel ephemeral, and a book has a feeling of permanence and is tangible. It’s also recognizing that not every kid who might need to hear these messages has access to the Web, and this is a way to further spread the message…I think schools are looking for ways that they can communicate to LGBT kids. Not all of them are out, so not all of them can be reached through GSA [the Gay-Straight Alliance network] or mentoring programs. To demonstrate to all the kids in the school that the school is on the side of and in support of LGBT views, the questions and the struggle. And the school can demonstrate that, have a GSA and make sure that this book is stocked on the shelves of the library.
You speak at colleges often, but have you found since you launched the project that more high school and middle school educators have come forward and opened the dialogue with you about the project?
A lot of educators have made videos, including really heart-breaking ones, of high school teachers wearing masks, who wrote their testimonies on cards and slips because they can’t be out in the school districts that they live in without being fired and are wanting to let the kids know that they have allies on the staff, but they don’t realize it.
We have heard from schools—schools have shown a long desire to avoid this issue of sexuality, in terms of politicizing, pride and mute sexuality particularly, but in the last year—August, September and October of last year—schools have faced up to the fact that they cannot avoid this issue, that there are gay children in their schools and in many places, too many places, and that these kids are suffering. It has to be addressed. Schools can face the grief of addressing the issue directly now, or they can face the grief and the publicity and the negative blowback of failing to address it and having to answer for a suicide.
How did you guys work together to include the mix of the essays that you included in the book?
My hope and stated goal was to get a real diversity of voices of all races, classes, religious backgrounds, all life experiences, because LGBT kids are a diverse bunch, just like LGBT itself. So we were thrilled when videos started pouring in, and there was evidence from the outset that we were seeing videos from a broad range of people. We put the book together, and Terry did a lot of the work, or most of the work. Well he would say most of the work [laugh]. We looked first to essays that were insightful, moving, and we wanted to make sure that there was that diverse experience of LGBT kids represented in the book. After that it was just looking for what was moving and what spoke to us.
It’s great that this is what he’s working on with you together.
I called him and asked, “Would you do this?” It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t said yes…He was so brutally bullied in his schools that he immediately said yes when he heard the idea. He had the reaction that many other people had when they heard the idea—“Oh, my God, yes, let’s do this.” We gave ourselves permission to talk to queer kids, and by extension, invited all of LGBT adults up there to start talking to gay kids about our lives as gay adults, and that [it’s] worth staying around for. That was Terry’s reaction from the start—he was excited to work on the book, excited to do the video, excited to work on the website because he empathizes, because he is appalled that things are as bad for some kids now as they were for him then.
I know that you have had a lot of kids over the years writing to [your column] “Savage Love” about these very issues. Do you feel like it has worsened over recent years in this country? What is your impression?
You don’t want to qualify that. In some ways it’s never been a better time to be a gay kid than right now, if you have family that loves and supports you and understands that it’s not a choice and there isn’t an intention of bullying you out of being gay. And you go to a school with GSA and anti–bullying programs and you have peers who support you and value you, there’s never been a better time than right now to be a gay teenager ever.
Ironically, you do have families that reject you, you go to some school, private or public, where bullying is tolerated or encouraged, or as the ACLU found in looking at the Seth Walsh suicide in California, that participated in it. And your peers tell you it’s never been a worse time, and I do feel in some ways it’s gotten worse for gay kids in the last 20 years, because I know that when I was growing up, if you were a shy, weird boy with no apparent interest in girls, the default assumption wasn’t that you were gay, it was just that you were weird. And today, a lot of kids who aren’t gay are bullied for being gay just because they’re different.
And of course kids who are gay are bullied for being gay. And the reason I also think it’s gotten worse is really we’re seeing the fruits, if I can use that expression, of a 20-year anti-gay hate campaign raised from the religious right. You have politicians, preachers, running around insisting that gay people, gay marriage, gay families, are an attack on the institution of marriage, that we are going to destroy the family. Adults hear this, and they can not only abuse gay people at the ballot box, but their kids hear this and they go to school on Monday and there’s a gay kid, and they feel, and they witness their parents abusing gay people, that they have a right to abuse gay people, too. And I think it’s made it worse.
The book’s coming out March 22. What other parts of the campaign are you guys planning to unfold for 2011?
The goal now is to raise enough money to really endow and preserve the website and to have enough money to a campaign to raise awareness for the website. Five years from now, we want kids who are 9 years old now to be able to find their way to these videos. They need to see them…The videos are going to be archived on this website.
But beyond that, we have already given tens of thousands of dollars to the Trevor Project, to GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network], and to the ACLU that we’ve raised, because we don’t want to, especially in this economy, be another drain, another handout, another charity. We are trying to keep our mission very focused—delivering these messages of hope and also constructive messages about coping and coping mechanisms and how to make it better at the school you are at and in your home life.