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Showing Gay Teenagers a Happy Future


A new online video channel is reaching out to teenagers who are bullied at school for being gay. The message: life really does get better after high school.

The YouTube channel, called the “It Gets Better Project,” was created by the Seattle advice columnist and activist Dan Savage. Mr. Savage says he was moved by the suicide of Billy Lucas, a Greensburg, Ind., high school student who was the target of slurs and bullying. The channel promises to be a collection of videos from adults in the gay community who share their own stories of surviving school bullying and moving on to build successful careers and happy home lives. The first video shows Mr. Savage with his partner of 16 years, Terry. The men tell their own stories of being bullied, finding each other and becoming parents. This week I spoke with Mr. Savage about the new channel and why he decided to reach out to teenagers. Here’s our conversation. 

Q.
Why did you decide to create a YouTube channel to talk to gay teenagers?

A.
There was another suicide of a teenager, a kid who was being harassed for being gay. I put up a link to the story, and someone said in a comment that they wished they could have talked to the kid for five minutes to tell him it gets better. That’s always been my reaction too. I realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids. We can make an end run around the schools that don’t protect them, from parents who want to keep gay kids isolated and churches that tell them that they are sinful or disordered.

Q.
Aren’t celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert already showing teenagers that it’s O.K. to be gay?

A.
They see Ellen and Adam Lambert and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re good folks and important public figures, but those are gay celebrities. What are the odds of becoming a celebrity? What kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves. Becoming Ellen is like winning the lottery. But there are a lot of happy and content lesbians who we don’t see or hear from ever. Those are the people teens need to hear from right now. When a 15-year-old kills himself, he’s saying he can’t picture a future that is decent enough and happy enough to stick around for. Gay adults can show our present lives and help them picture a future.

Q.
The video advice you offer kids is to just hang in there. Why aren’t you telling them that you can help them now?

A.
We can’t help them. That’s what makes gay adults despair and feel so helpless when we hear these stories. We can’t barge into these schools. I get to go to colleges and speak, but high schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. I’ve read these stories for years. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.

Q.
You’re an advice columnist who writes about other people’s issues. Was talking about your personal and family life difficult?

A.
It made me more self-conscious. I don’t write about my life in my column. It was difficult. It’s going to be difficult for a lot of people. You can see people revisiting this part of their lives that they wanted to forget about. I don’t like to think about what school was like for me. It kills me when Terry talks about it because he suffered so much. The thing that was also difficult, we didn’t want to seem like we are bragging, but we wanted to talk about the things that are good and meaningful and give us joy, like going snowboarding or going to Paris. We don’t want to seem elitist. And we didn’t want to wallow in pain. We want to give kids hope for a future life that has pleasure and joy and family.

Q.
How is the channel going to work?

A.
We want people to post their own videos and send me a link. I can select them and add it to the page. The Web site is www.YouTube.com/ItGetsBetterProject. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes in. I don’t want it to be “lifestyles of the gay and fabulous.” What we want to say to kids is that if you don’t win the economic lottery, and most people don’t, you can have a good and decent and fun life that brings love.

Q.
The first line of your video is, “High school was bad….” What kinds of things did you and your partner have to deal with in high school and middle school?

A.
It was late grade school that was hard for me. I was really different, my head was in the clouds. I liked musicals. I didn’t make friends or hang out with people. Then I found theater. I got picked on a lot, even by teachers too. I liked to listen to musicals and bake, and my homeroom teacher found out and mocked me in front of the whole class for baking. I got beat up a couple of times in the schoolyard. It’s nothing compared to what Terry went through. He was beat up every day, stuffed into bathroom stalls. He could barely walk down the halls without being attacked. His parents went and spoke to the administrators and were told that they wouldn’t do anything so long as he insisted on acting the way he acted and walking the way he walked and talking the way he talked, and he was bringing it on himself.

Q.
Would hearing from gay adults that your life eventually would get better have helped you back then?

A.
It did help me. When I was in high school I got involved in the fringe theater scene in Chicago, and I met some openly gay people. I could see that it got better, that they were happy and loved and supported. I saw with my own eyes that it got better.

Q.
Have you heard from any teenagers yet since posting the first video this week?

A.
I’ve heard from bunches. I’ve gotten 3,000 e-mails in the first 24 hours. The ones that are really moving are the ones from straight kids who are telling me that they are e-mailing the link to their picked-on gay classmates and friends who need to see it.
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