One year ago, if you will recall, our country began to seem to be a locale where teen suicides were of epidemic proportions. Furthermore, it seemed that there was a strong link between these teen suicides and bullying based on hatred of particular sexual orientations. Raymond Chase, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi, Ryan Halligan, to name a few, rose to national prominence in this category. Some were gay and were bullied. Some were not identified as gay, but were just perceived as being gay, and were bullied. One was filmed (by his roommate, without his knowledge) having sex with a same-sex partner and then had the video streamed online (without his consent). By all accounts, the bullying affected their decision to end their lives, or directly caused the idea to form.
Dan Savage, the syndicated sex columnist, and his husband, Terry Miller, decided that these events could no longer pass without “doing something.” The seed that began the “It Gets Better Project” was the notion that if only it were possible to talk to these teens for five minutes and let them know that life gets better, that high school is the worst time, these suicides could be prevented. Thus, in late September 2010, Dan and Terry created a video. This video quickly went viral, and caused literally tens of thousands of other people (gays and straights, famous and unsung) to create their own videos.
I discovered the “It Gets Better Project” early this year. My reaction was in feeling that for the first time in the short history of social media, the YouTube and Facebook world that we find ourselves in seemed to be a force of positive social change. (This was, of course, soon followed by the Arab Spring uprisings, which some reports have indicated were organized through Facebook.) The future is now, my friends! Social media has changed the world. Its effects might well be limited only by the human ability to dream, which may well be limitless.
I do not want to be caught up in the fever of unjustified optimism, however. The rates of teen suicides may not have decreased in the last year (we will need to wait a few years for trustworthy statistics). But, in a recent article on the LGBTNATION website, a teenager named Dylan was noted for sending out thanks to two gay men, Jay and Brian, for their “It Gets Better” video. So, at least one teen felt the impact of the “It Gets Better Project.”
In similarly momentous news, September 20, 2011 is the official end date of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in our armed forces. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said that as of September 21, 2011 former soldiers, sailors, and airmen (and airwomen) who were removed because of the DADT policy can request to be reinstated. September 21, 2011 also marked the first ever U.S. Department of Education Anti-Bullying summit. However, as all of this momentous news of our species moving forward, we were reminded yet again that we do not yet live in Utopia.
After the weekend of September 17/18 of 2011, it was reported that a 14-year old named Jamey Rodemeyer had committed suicide outside of his home after experiencing months of bullying at the hands and mouths and keyboards of his schoolmates. “If only this boy had been able to see the “It Gets Better” videos,” I thought. Well, it turns out that he had. In fact, he had even made an “It Gets Better” video himself, talking about loving yourself leading to life getting better and finding a friend who was supportive of his coming out.
What does this mean? Children who know it is going to get better, don’t actually understand that it does get better and that it will get better? Can teen suicide be prevented under these circumstances? Dan Savage was interviewed about this suicide. He was asked about the failure of the “It Gets Better” project to save this child: “What can we tell teens for whom the future is too far away?” Apparently, changing the world is not enough for some; you must have all the answers. In my opinion, Dan Savage has done enough. (Chinese proverb: “Those who say it cannot be done should not impede those doing it.”) The issue is now what we want our society to be. How healthy do we want our society to be? When children are killing themselves because the message they are receiving from our society is that they are sinners, are abominations, and are better off dead, it is imperative upon those with humanity and empathy to alter the message. (I hate the last sentence I just wrote. It lacks magic. But, unfortunately for all of us, it is the truth.) Thank you, Dan Savage. Thank you, “It Gets Better” project. Thank you, social media. In me, at least, you have an ardent fan whom will be standing and cheering for you even if you lose.
Postscript: Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011. He is one of the major sparks that allowed social media to exist and our world to change in this way. The boys who changed the world are dying. And so it goes.