Saturday, October 16, 2010

It Gets Better/You Grow Stronger Project

"Only difficulty is stimulating..." - José Lezama Lima

While I as an out, black, gay man strongly endorse the general idea behind and the creation of the "It Gets Better" project and series of videos initiated by Dan Savage* to address the recent slew of suicides by bullied, harassed and violated queer and questioning youth, such as Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, I have been slow in posting one, despite my acknowledging that it might prove helpful to the very few who might view it (which is why I very likely will soon post one). I feel this way in part because, based on my own life and the lives of those queer people whom I've known, I believe it isn't so much that things get better--especially if you are black, and working-class or poor, and a woman or a transgender person, and differently abled, and geographically isolated, etc.,--as it is that you get stronger. (Gukira discusses this with his inimitable brilliance on his blog.)

It's that you learn to address, rather than adapt or mould yourself to, the world's disdain for you, your invisibility and objectification, how little so many people, including loved ones who are not LGBT and some who are, really do see you or care about your existence. You learn to raise your innate antennae, sharpen and clarify your senses, develop new spiritual, psychological and emotional muscles, through your experiences, thereby allowing you then to move through the world with increasing self-awareness, resistance, confidence, joy. It may not always seem better or easier, but often it may. You can become stronger and more knowledgeable about yourself, and about others like you; you can come to see that the despair you have felt may sometimes place you right back on the edge--of something, some place, including life itself--but now you realize you are able to take a step back and turn in a different direction that will include reflection and affirmation, self-reflection and self-affirmation: and you keep on going, keep going on.

And as you keep going, you can increasingly create a life and enjoy it, shape the world around you such that you are able to experience it fully, to be present in it, connect with, understand, and love people like you and unlike you, including even people who cannot possibly imagine the worlds you're moving in, your complexities and nuances, because they cannot and do not want to see them. Because sometimes, as a result of their own limitations, they want to erase them--and you. Because you are stronger you can drop the armor you often have had to wear to protect yourself--not toss it aside, but at least step out into the world without all of it. You do not have to cry yourself to sleep. You do not have to wake worrying that, with a parent or sibling refusing to offer you the sort of unconditional love they claim they're capable of, or that the God they believe in is capable of, you are utterly alone. You do not have to feel that whenever you speak it's as if you are speaking into a void. You do not have to hide who you are, for fear of the repercussions of being yourself.

Because your strength and self-knowledge and broader knowledge have deepened, have grown richer and firmer, are available to you at all times, and will keep on becoming more so, not despite but as a result of the vicissitudes, the pain, and yes, the victories, and happinesses you experience. All of it will make you stronger if you let it, if you act upon them and make yourself stronger. Perhaps you might see this as better, and that is wonderful. But stronger, definitely, is something you can achieve, and thus, live and thrive.

*I want to note that my respect for Dan Savage dropped precipitously when, after the initial Proposition 8 vote in California, he rushed to lay blame at the doorstep of Black Californians. I can and do forgive all the time, and unequivocally so, but I also cannot so easily forget what was an appalling display of the most simplistic thinking and ready-at-the-drop-of-an-election racism. As studies later showed, if Black voters had not voted in that election, Proposition 8 still would have passed. Perhaps Savage later apologized, but if so, I never saw it, because I have studiously tried to stay away from his blog and columns. I also should note that his brother is a colleague of mine, and I think the world of him.


  1. You've just expressed perfectly the exact thing I hope to get across with my video. I've been delaying making mine as well, because I've been having trouble thinking of a way to say what I really feel, but this is pretty much it. And not just about LBGT issues; everything. For a long time, I've wanted to tell ALL high school students "it gets better." And it's not because you leave high school, it's because you grow the f***k up. I, like many people, was miserable in high school, and it had less to do with other people being intolerant of who I was than with me being unsure of and uncomfortable with my own identity. It's not that people become more tolerant outside of high school. Actually, I never encountered aggressive, hateful homophobia until I was out of my highly sheltered, Quaker-school environment. But if I had, I would have been deeply wounded, like these kids who were victims of bullying. Those where the days when I could spend an entire day miserable and self-loathing, because a more popular student looked at me, whispered something to a friend, and then laughed. I can't imagine giving that much of a damn now, and I can't imagine how I would have felt if my sexuality (which I was still angsting about like any good, black-wearing, hair-dying, whiny teenager) had been attacked when I was so desperate for acceptance. Now, when I encounter homophobia, it makes me angry, but it doesn't hurt me, unless its coming from someone from whom I expected better. What gets better is not the behavior of others, but my own ability to deal with it.

    Like I say, it's not just the gay thing. I weigh more now than I did in high school, not less, but now if someone came up to me and said "hey, you're fat," I would reply "go to Hell, who asked you?" whereas in high school I would have cried. Seriously. I can no longer imagine someone else's unkindness hurting me that way. That's me changing, and my own level of confidence in myself, not where I am. Basically, I got better. I'm still trying to think of a way to express that to kids in high school that doesn't sound condescending. I can remember that feeling of hyper-significance to everything, and I don't think I would have believed someone if they'd told me that that goes away.

    I too have had problems with Dan Savage, mostly related to the occasionally appalling things he says about women. And the attacks he's made on bisexuals. And his philosophy that cheating is justified, because sexual satisfaction is more important than loyalty to one's partner. Huh. When I put it like that it sort of sounds like I have a lot of problems with him. I think I know what's going on with the remarks he made about black voters. He's fallen into wrongly thinking that, because he is a member of a marginalized minority group, he gets a free pass on being a bigot. I think that attitude contributes to his misogyny as well.

  2. thank you, John Keene. I (and several of my friends) have been critiquing the "It Gets Better" project (sometimes it just *doesn't* get better, what to tell young folk then? how long are kids supposed to stick it out? how can kids become more involved in their own salvation?), and trying to come up with another message. i think you've hit the nail on the head. may i borrow?

  3. Miriam, excellent points. Thanks also for reminding me of Dan Savage's misogyny. The pro-sexual freedom element of his discourse may derive directly from the self-actualizing, or narcissistic aspects, depending upon on how you see it, of later gay liberationist ideology that he, I and others probably first came out in. The wariness towards any kind of domesticity or formal bonds that could be considered heteronormative were central to arguments I heard during that period (the early and mid 1980s) about how gay people might organize their lives, and utterly alien to the mindset that predominates now.