Does It Really “Get Better” for LGBT People?

My best friend from high school, Scott Fried, is a health educator and motivational speaker who became HIV-positive the first time he ever had sex with a man in his early twenties. Somewhere in a locked vault is a 1982 picture of him looking swanky in tails alongside me in a dress (pastels—what was I thinking?!) heading off to his prom at The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. [He still looks swanky and I haven't worn a dress in 11 years.]

Scotty—I’m still allowed to call him that—was aiming for a career on Broadway or the big screen, but life rerouted him to become a successful public lecturer at schools, synagogues, on TV and radio, and occasionally even in prisons. Thousands of teens write him letters and e-mails, snippets of which he’s collected in books about how young people, not just LGBT people, need to talk about their feelings and real lives in order to be able to find the confidence to be healthy and fulfilled.

In speeches like “The Closet Monologues” and “AIDS, Love and the Secret Lives of College Students,” Scotty gets teens and young adults talking about their real feelings about sex and sexuality in a totally supportive atmosphere in which he exposes his own story of shame that led him to have the unprotected sex that infected him years ago. For most, it is the first time they have ever discussed these issues openly and with someone who gives a damn.

Given Scotty’s 19 years in the trenches along the front lines of teen suicide and HIV prevention, I respect his opinion about Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video project in which thousands of LGBT adults talk directly to teens about how their lives get better after high school and why they need to hang on.

“It doesn’t always get better, it’s just not true,” Scotty told me. Scott visits towns and schools, including in major urban centers, where the parents continue to parrot the idiocies of yore and young people continue to berate and harangue anyone who displays Gleeklike tendencies. He has a point. But so does Dan.

True enough, for many, many LGBT adults, especially those who are poorer, blacker or living in far-flung towns away from gayborhoods and rainbow ghettos, life may continue to be a struggle on the sexuality front. And while I wholeheartedly support any efforts to address LGBT teen suicide, even among LGBT adults the suicide rates remain much higher than for straights—along with alcoholism, drug abuse and smoking rates.

Which is why I think the additional video and activist youth project, “Make it Better,” needs support too. Their approach is to get teens acting right now on fighting homophobia in their schools and neighborhoods and exposing the bigotry and lies that lead to the bullying and suicides. To me, these projects approach the reality of LGBT people’s lives from different vantage points and frankly I think they each have the potential to reach people who can make a difference.

The enormous outpouring of support for Dan Savage’s project and the practical, hands-on approach of the “Make it Better” project both have the potential to alleviate suffering and prevent LGBT suicide now. I applaud whatever works.

However, so long as our laws and legislators promote and defend the indefensible inequality that sets the stage for the harassment and the internalized hatred, suicide and abuse will continue at alarming rates. The battle against bullying needs to extend to the biggest bullies on the block, including the president himself whose Justice Department has shamefully appealed the latest ruling to strike down Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

How can we expect our kids to find value in their lives when our own government tells them they are just a bunch of useless queers?

If you’re looking for a campus speaker on LGBT and gender issues or fighting the right, check out some snazzy things that folks who’ve invited me to their campuses have to say:

Sherry Wolf knows her stuff, and delivers smart political analysis with astonishing dynamism and wit that will have you out of your seat and laughing until you cry. Her rip-roaring presentations—about the failure of liberal politics today to deliver real change for minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and the poor—are great for many audiences, including students and activists. Bring her in to speak. You’ll learn more than you bargained for and leave the auditorium wanting to change the world. —Dana Cloud, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Director of Graduate Studies, University of Texas at Austin

3 responses to “Does It Really “Get Better” for LGBT People?

  1. Great column. Thanks for the link to the Das Kapital lectures. Can’t wait to get started on that. And yes, the Rochester parody was chillingly hilarious.

  2. Both “it gets better” and “makes it better” need support because they are two different strategies, that if aimed at the same set of liberatory goals, will mutually enhance the chances of success of both projects.

    “It gets better” has had many different names and faces throughout history; it has existed as slave spirituals sung in code, a peasant poaching deer in the King’s Forest, as factory exposure leaflets, as hidden flags and symbols, of an alienated worker who first learns to work a machine and then to temporarily break it so he can grab a coffee, of a few friends half joking, half seriously talking about getting one over on the boss, landlord, or officer. It gets better provides the initial intervention and later builds the solidarity superglue that binds together the people who make up unions, mutual-aid societies, tenant councils, collective gardens, and reading groups.

    Makes it better is that initial refusal to give up or give in self actualized into action. Making it better is the process of gaining the confidence, knowledge, and experience to not just hope but work towards better. Makes it better is something that brings to mind expressions on a banner at the head of a march. Makes it better does not ask, it demands. Not hoping, but taking action. Not speculating, but learning and applying. Not settling for crumbs, but taking hold of the pie made by its labor.

    The two projects have a lot of potential if coordinated to acheive common goals.

  3. Good piece. The truth is that for some it doesn’t get better… but as a starting point for someone in need of support it ain’t a bad spot to start, as long as it is followed with practical steps.

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