Good Vibes Joins the “It Gets Better” Campaign
While it’s not Good Vibrations’ mission to discuss sexuality with people under 18 (we carry books and list resources for parents to optimize the chances that our customers’ kids get good information delivered comfortably), all of us were under 18 once, and all of us here have watched with horror and dismay at the rash of teen and young adult suicides linked to bullying, homophobia, and other awful side effects of being young and feeling one has insufficient support. It’s not lost on us that even when some of these young people turn 18, they cannot find a way out–perhaps the most well-known of the recent suicides, nonconsensually-outed Tyler Clementi, was a freshman at Rutgers and a promising musician. We’re not the only ones who are horrified about this situation — today it’s big news that Cindy McCain is speaking out against bullying and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell — and today we joined one of the most important single sources of support for these scared, hopeless youth, the It Gets Better Project.
Our longtime pal Dan Savage* started this internet-based media campaign in September in response to an earlier suicide provoked by homophobia and bullying. Famous and everyday people from President Obama to the employees of the Salt Lake City Public Library tell their own stories and send messages of support, video and written, to the young people who tune in. By extension they raise the profile of this issue, which is hardly new — back in 1983 the late gay activist Eric Rofes (with whom I was privileged to serve until his death on the Woodhull Freedom Foundation board of directors) wrote a stunning book called I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves, that decade’s shot across the bow to a community that tended to turn its back on the problem of LGBT suicide.
Have youth suicides gone up? Or has this recent rash of incidents, much as it seems to be a copy-catting epidemic of deaths, really benefited more from the light of observation? So many past deaths have gone unnoted by the national media, which can focus so much attention on a topic when it chooses to that it always seems the phenomenon in question has exploded onto the scene, even when it’s been there all along. But it doesn’t matter, really, if this is a true rise in incidence or just a spike in reportage and attention: there are too many such deaths, our whole culture’s future possibilities irrevocably changed because we’ve lost the gifts those young people might have contributed. Like the activism that surged around the growth of the AIDS epidemic, those of us who remain must stand up, not just to honor the people who have died, but also to prevent as many future deaths as we can.
I very much value the attention on LGBT issues here. Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia are all scourges, and never worse than when someone is coming out and looking for signs of a safe and friendly future. But I want to remind everyone that slut-shaming (real and perceived, or just deployed as name-calling) has been part of this wave of bullying and harassment also, so heterosexuals, too, have a dog in this race. It’s turned pretty uncivil in America, and old hatreds and antipathies have new technological allies. It’s fitting that Dan’s project is technological, therefore — I couldn’t even find the actual written stories on the site! — and easily accessible by computer. I hope someone is looking out for the communication needs of the folks who aren’t online, but at least those kids (and grown-ups) don’t have to handle the sometimes-deadly irritation that is Facebook bullying.
That’s why I didn’t address sexual orientation when I recorded the Good Vibrations message to submit to the It Gets Better Project. Everyone else is doing that so well, after all. At GV we have 33+ years of background in the adult effects of youth sexual repression, ignorance, fear, and poor sex education — the fact is, even when people don’t kill themselves, they often lead impaired lives where sexual pleasure and ability to communicate and seek appropriate partners is concerned (not to mention developing and maintaining realistic expectations of those partners they do find). People of all orientations deal with these things, because people of all orientations are given seriously sub-par sex education. Dan knows this too — as the gay man straight people can ask any question in his column Savage Love, he hears from everybody about everything, as do we, and I’m guessing he knows that keeping people alive into adulthood is just the beginning of getting them set up with healthy, happy lives full of love, pleasure, and self-acceptance not just for the sexual orientation they happen to be, but also whatever the specific details may be of their desire and erotic satisfaction.
My own story is on the It Gets Better Project site (just in case you can’t find the text either):
I was a bisexual teenager — not that anyone in my backwoods town knew what that was, including any possible girlfriends. I felt alone except for the support of 2 teachers, who ironically were probably better able to reach out and help me then than LGBT teachers are now. It’s worth saying that the only time I contemplated suicide, though, was when I thought I might be pregnant. (I wrote about it later, in a book you should know about called Live Through This.) As I’ve spent the rest of my life (and now my career) thinking about & studying & exploring & talking about, many people’s sexualities are not just either/or, but can be more complex. I studied this because I had to, because my kind of sexuality got insufficient support and understanding from others.
I was lucky to leave high school in only 3 years and go to college. There I met other queer kids, and with them in 1975 I founded the 2nd or 3rd gay youth group in the US. We lost one friend to suicide, but we had each other, so we didn’t lose more. Older LGBT people were often scared of us: we were “jailbait,” & even those who had no sexual interest in any of us were afraid they’d get targeted by association. It was important for us to have age-mates. There aren’t enough LGBT youth groups even today, 35 years later. I hope some of you can go out and start some more.
No one ever told me that an interest in sex, sexual orientation, & sexual issues could translate into work: not just activism, but a career. But it can. It gets better when you get information, and support, and you can feel like you’re making a difference. Even when one part of your life feels out of control or powerless, you can do something positive with some of your time & energy. You can learn: read up on issues, figure out where you can go when you’re old enough to move. If someone’s hurting you, you can tell people whose job it is to help. If you have questions about sex & safety, you can check out Scarleteen.com. Along the way, doing those things, moving yourself toward the future, some of you will put yourselves through basic training as activists. Some will be the next generation of sex therapists and social workers who can help other kids later. Some of you will go to law school. Some of you will write your stories. A lot of you, though you might not believe this right now, will be able to leave where you are, and join a bigger world that has created significant enclaves of safety and support.
I live in one of those now, San Francisco, so this is easy for me to say. I work at Good Vibrations and help develop sex ed programming. I have a PhD in sexology. I have a dozen books about sex under my name (and writings in a lot more). I’ve been Grand Marshal of the LGBT Pride Parade. I founded a nonprofit called the Center for Sex & Culture. I have a bisexual domestic partner, & I’ve lectured about sex at Yale & a lot of other places. But I came from a TINY conservative town in the mountains. I went to a state school because it’s what my parents could afford. Nothing about the way I grew up could have allowed me to predict this future.
You may not be able to see the future either. People around you may not support your dreams or even who you are (or they may not understand who you are or know how to show their support to you). But listen, the future holds more possibility than you can ever imagine. If you don’t get there, you’ll never know what might have been possible–& we’ll never get to know what kind of difference you might have made. If you’re reading this, you’re part of a historic movement: social change, civil rights, freedom. That’s true even if you’re not LGBT (or you may have no idea yet who and what you are). I want you to stick around so I can work with you, read your story, tell you more of mine, be inspired by what you accomplish. People around you may not be able to get you this message. Nobody else will do all of this for you. But listen: It gets better. Stay alive.
In case you didn’t notice, there’s pretty much nothing about actual sex in there. (Sexual orientation is not really so much about sex as the gender/s of the person/s one might want to have sex [and love, and a life] with.) I figure I’m talking to some people under 18, after all — but I can guarantee you, when those readers turn 18, I’ll be talking to them for the rest of my days.
Sign the pledge page on the It Gets Better Project site today and keep this conversation alive.
*Dan’s been in our Masturbation Hall of Fame for years!
More GV Magazine articles on the current rash of bullying-related suicides:
- Airial Clark: Gay Teen Suicides
- Dr. Charlie Glickman: Homophobia Bullying and Queer Youth Suicides
- Harlequinn: Un-mixing the Message