Last fall, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage decided he wanted to help after reading numerous stories about gay youths being bullied — some to the point of suicide.
See also: Support your gay child.
Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, set out to create an educational program that they could bring into middle schools and high schools. But when they encountered resistance on the part of educators, they decided to skip the middlemen and go directly to kids.
Savage and Miller created a short video to send the message that, even if life may seem tough right now for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) young people, it does indeed get better. They posted it on YouTube, where it quickly went viral and turned into a worldwide sensation.
Today, more than 10,000 people from all walks of life have made YouTube videos with a similar message for LGBT youth. These videos have been viewed more than 35 million times and have been made by celebrities, activists and politicians, including President Barack Obama, Colin Farrell, Matthew Morrison of Glee, Ellen DeGeneres and Suze Orman, to name just a few.
AARP interviewed Savage about the role people 50 and older played in the project, its relevance to older audiences and other aspects of the project's success.
Q: Why was it important for you and your partner to make your first "It Gets Better" video?
A: We wanted to do something. We didn't want to feel bad about the next LGBT youth suicide we read about. We didn't want to say to ourselves, again, that we wished we had known that kid, we wish we could've spoken to him and told him that it would get better for him the way it got better for us. We wanted to talk to LGBT kids before they harmed themselves. We wanted to give them hope.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about LGBT youth?
A: That they don't exist.
Q: Since you started the campaign, have you gotten many videos from people 50 and older?
A: Oh, there are lots of videos from folks over 50. I'm getting close to the big five-oh myself. Some of the most moving videos are from LGBT elders, from folks who came out a time when gay people could still be arrested or committed [to a mental institution] for being open about who they were. When you hear them say it gets better, when you hear them say they love their lives, that it's still getting better — that has a real impact, and it puts the things that we're struggling with now, politically and personally, into perspective.
Q: It's historic that the president of the United States would reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Is this a sign of times changing?
A: Yes, absolutely. It took Ronald Reagan seven years to respond to the AIDS crisis. He didn't even say the word "AIDS" until 1987, until thousands and thousands of gay Americans had already died. It took Barack Obama just four weeks to get involved in the It Gets Better Project, just four weeks to reach out to answer the call to reach out to LGBT youth.
Q: When you initially launched the movement, you were targeting LGBT adults to speak to youth, but you have received an overwhelming response from straight allies, as well. Were you surprised?
A: Not surprised — one of the ways that it has gotten better for us, one of the most crucial ways, is that straight people have become more understanding, more accepting. Not just tolerant, but affirming. Things would never have changed for gay people if our straight friends and families, our straight co-workers and neighbors, hadn't rethought their prejudices … after we started coming out and living openly and with integrity.
So I'm not surprised that there were straight people out there who would want to reach out, who would want to help LGBT youth. I'm glad so many did. That means a lot to gay kids, particularly the ones who are bullied. If you're a gay kid and your straight parents, and your straight peers, and your straight teachers are bullying you, you might conclude that all straight people are your enemies; that all straight people are hostile and hateful. That's not the case and it's good that bullied gay kids are seeing proof of that when they come to ItGetsBetter.org.
Q: Among the thousands of uploaded videos on YouTube and your website, do you have a favorite? And why?
A: I love Gabrielle Rivera's. She's a lesbian, Latina poet. Bronx-born and raised. And her video begins with her saying that it doesn't get better. What happens, she says, is that you get stronger, which is the Latina, lesbian, Bronx way of saying that it gets better.
Q: Why is it important for people ages 50 and over to know about the It Gets Better movement?
A: Because you might have a gay kid or a gay grandkid. Families used to think that they could prevent their gay kids from being gay by rejecting them, by withholding their love and approval and support. What we know now is that you can't prevent a gay kid from being gay. You can only prevent him from being.
If your kid is being bullied — particularly if you or your family is doing the bullying — you need to realize that it won't prevent him from being gay when he grows up. But it could prevent him from growing up at all. LGBT kids are four times likelier to attempt suicide. When family members are hostile or bullying, they're eight times likelier to attempt suicide. Ask yourself: Would you rather go to your gay kid's wedding one day or would you rather go to his funeral next week?
Q: What can we learn from the It Gets Better campaign?
A: That gay kids exist. And that they need our love and our support. And that LGBT adults are not going to stand by and keep silent anymore while LGBT kids are bullied and brutalized in the schools we attended, the suburbs we left behind and the churches where we were told that God hates fags (sometimes it was put more politely, but the message was the same). We're going to talk to LGBT youth whether their parents realize now — you'll thank us one day — that they want us to. The days when accusations of attempting to recruit children into the "gay lifestyle" could silence us are over.