Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On the 'It Gets Better' Campaign -- And Reactions to It

Ann Friedman and Gabriel Arana over at The American Prospect are taking issue with the direction that the "It Gets Better" campaign has taken. Arana takes issue with the idea that straight "B-list" celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein are making "It Gets Better" videos that seem to miss the whole point of the campaign: Talking about the problem with bullying that targets LGBT youth. [Disclosure: I consider Klein a friend.] Arana's point is really important, and one that I've been thinking about a lot over the course of this campaign. Particularly this part:

It's not just the schoolyard jerk who picks on you. It's the pastor who rails against the "gay agenda" on Sunday, the parent who stands up at a city council meeting and says he moved to your city because it's "the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms," and politicians like New York's would-be governor Carl Paladino, who on the campaign trail said things like "there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual." Even once you get past high school, you still can't get married or serve in the military, and in most states, your employer can fire you just for being gay. This is the kind of "bullying" gay kids face, and it's the kind no one's standing up to.

If anything, the responses of educators and policy-makers seem designed to illustrate that, for gay teens, it often doesn't get better.

After all, just last month the New York Daily News reported that a gay cop in the 103rd Precinct in Queens faced "relentless anti-homosexual hostility on the job." And we still have no federal employment protections in place for LGBT folks.

That was my main problem with the "It Gets Better" campaign at the outset. After all Dan Savage certainly faced bullying in the past, but he's also reasonably wealthy and lives in a gay-friendly city. (I listen to Savage's podcast regularly.) Not everyone can have his fairy-tale life (or at least, the fairy tale he presented in his video). His video, like those of Kardashian's and Klein's, ring somewhat hallow to the ears of those that struggle with discrimination, not just on the LGBT front, but also when it comes to other components of identity. Savage comes from privilege as a white, wealthy gay man living in Seattle. Savage's outlook seems to be that homophobic elements of culture will never change, or at least, that we shouldn't bother with trying to change it, thus, the fairy tale escapism story. Incidentally Savage's advice continues to be to tell gay youth in rural gay-unfriendly areas to get out and run to a city that's more accepting of gay rights. Not much of an advocate for changing the culture there.

But there are a couple of things missing from the discussion. First of all, one point that needs to be addressed if we're talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer teen suicides, we also need to talk about mental illness. That's harder to parse because causes of mental illness are complex and mostly unknown. That's not to excuse bullying in these instances at all -- but it is important to acknowledge that what's going on here when it comes to suicide is complicated and can't be blamed totally on bullying. After all, not all LGBTQ people commit or attempt suicide and not all suicides are committed or attempted by LGBTQ folks. Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated than just blaming bullying -- though curbing bullying can certainly help.

Secondly, I understand how hollow the words of straight people who go off topic of the problem of LGBT bullying and make it about their own problems with not fitting in sound. But if we're going to critique straight people when they weigh in on the subject (I also identify as straight), then we need to give guidance to how they can help. The very reason I haven't written about this campaign up to this point is that I felt I wasn't "qualified" because my experience as a straight person didn't fit in with the narrative of the campaign. But where do straight people fit in? That has never been a clear part of the discussion.

To me, this echoes other discussions that minority groups get into about outside allies trying to get into the game: With feminists, they sometimes argue men (particularly straight men) aren't qualified to weigh in on the subject of discrimination or sexism because they've never experienced it. I tend to fall on the side of involving men in feminism -- even at the risk of them saying something that isn't quite right -- is worth it because I don't see how we change some of these institutional problems without men.

But the discussion around LGBTQ bullying is really hard to talk about as a straight person because I feel that there's little I can do in my daily life, except show support to the LGBTQ people in my life and vote for candidates who promise to support LGBTQ policies (even if they don't follow through on it). Friedman reflected this disappointment when said:

Obama's "It Gets Better" video, on the other hand, is primarily an anti-bullying public service announcement -- about as politically risky as decrying people who kick puppies or steal old ladies' handbags. In a message directed toward kids who feel constantly threatened, Obama chooses the safe path. He tells gay teens to stay strong and that "there is a whole world waiting for you, filled with possibilities" -- which is true, unless they aspire to marriage, parenthood, or a career in military service. Indeed, within days of posting the president's "It Gets Better" video, the Obama administration announced it would be reinstating "don't ask, don't tell" after a recent court ruling that ordered the military to stop enforcing the policy. Obama may want things to get better for LGBT teens, but he is not working to ensure that they do.

I can understand why Obama's response was frustrating to many in the LGBTQ community, precisely because of the administration's stalling on important and politically popular actions like repealing "don't ask, don't tell," pushing for more employment protections for LGBTQ folks, or showing support for same-sex marriage.

Arana echoes that sentiment in his disappointment with the Department of Education, which responded to the "It Gets Better" campaign with a memo clarifying that discrimination against LGBTQ students should be included with the types of discrimination that are banned by federal law -- even as they acknowledged that there are no laws in place that back up their stance. Arana thinks the Department of Education and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan didn't go far enough in talking about LGBTQ youth and the problems they face.

There's certainly enough blame to go around. And both Friedman and Arana make the point that what is actually needed instead of a video campaign -- as well intentioned as it is -- is to change some of the institutional problems that lead to the othering of LGBTQ folks in the first place. That I can't disagree with, whether I'm qualified to comment on the subject or not.

1 comment:

mike flugennock said...

During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama stated his opposition to same-sex marriage. He invited a gay-bashing megachurch preacher to speak at his Inauguration. Now, his Administration has argued before the Supreme Court for the reinstatement of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

Oh, yeah -- it gets better.

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