When a 15-year-old Indiana boy who had been taunted because he was gay hanged himself in September, Dan Savage, a columnist for a gay publication, said he wished he could have told the youth that life would get better if he could just persevere through high school.
So Savage and his partner made a video that they posted on YouTube saying just that, “It gets better,” and asking other gays to post their own videos.
That simple message circulated widely in the gay community for several weeks before Fort Worth, Texas, City Council member Joel Burns, stirred by the suicide of another youth, told a council meeting his own story of harassment and his thoughts of suicide, imploring youths to realize “it gets better.”
Burns’ message went viral, with more than 2 million hits on YouTube and interviews on all the big talk shows. With those, the “It Gets Better” campaign crossed into the mainstream media, attracting new “it gets better” messages from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, performer Gloria Estefan and gay New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, among others.
It truly became part of a nationwide conversation, with video contributions from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ultimately, President Barack Obama, who said he knew what it’s like to feel that you don’t belong. Posted on both the It Gets Better site and the White House website, Obama’s video drew more than 700,000 hits in less than a week.
“You are not alone,” the president said, addressing gay youths. “There are people out there who love you and care about you just the way you are”
Youth organizations have joined in, doing more outreach to gay youth and other youth who have been bullied.
“The media attention surrounding this has really opened a lot of eyes,” said Melissa Moore, program director at We Are Family, a nonprofit that serves gay youth in Charleston, S.C. “I think that anti-gay bullying has been causing suicides for a very long time. It needs to be brought to light.”
Studies show that gay youth attempt suicide at higher rates than other youth. A study in The American Journal of Public Health in 2007 estimated that 4.9 percent of gay and bisexual youth had attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of straight youth.
Suicides among gay youth who have been bullied have not stopped.
In late September, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York after his roommate posted a live web feed from their room as Clementi had a date with another male and kissed him. Clementi’s death and events that preceded it drew national media coverage, with many reports noting that it was the fifth recent suicide by a gay teen over alleged harassment.
That message and media attention, in turn, have emboldened many gay youth. At We Are Family in Charleston, Moore said, some youths contributed videos to It Gets Better and talked to the local news media about what it’s like to be a gay teenager. They talked to the school board about harassment in schools and held a candlelight vigil for the suicide victims around the country, she said.
Other youth groups also joined in. Youth Service America dedicated its weekly newsletter on Oct. 22 to support for gay youth, with links to resources and events about bullying, diversity and homosexual youth. Advocates for Youth, which focuses on sexuality issues, tackled the issue on its website, including posting more resources for support and encouraging video contributions to It Gets Better.
Some political observers saw the videos by Clinton and Obama as an effort to rally young people to the polls in November’s elections.
At the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, which focuses on gay rights, Deputy Executive Director jb beeson had mixed feelings. “It’s great that we’re talking about queer youth issues,” she said. “It does worry me that the only reason we bring it up is because of suicide.”
She worries that the focus on “the sad reality of being an LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender] youth puts a gray cloud over being a queer young person. There’s actually a lot of really great things about being a queer young person.”