Sean Shannon: Promises of ‘It Gets Better’ aren’t enoughWritten by Sean Shannon | | email@example.com
The “It Gets Better Project,” started last year by journalist Dan Savage, is an effort, according to the project’s website, “to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years.” The project was launched in the wake of a rash of LGBT youth suicides. With public figures from Justin Bieber to Barack Obama making videos in support of the project, “It Gets Better” has been very visible in the media.
In addition to celebrity videos, “It Gets Better” also encourages LGBT youth to upload their own videos to the Website to encourage other LGBT youth. Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old from Buffalo, was one of those youth. After being bullied by his schoolmates as he questioned his sexuality, this past May he told his friends that he was bisexual and made a video for the project. The comments his video received were, for the most part, positive.
However, despite the positive comments, despite having supportive parents, and despite seeing a social worker and a therapist, things did not get better for Rodemeyer. One person left a comment on his video saying that he was “stupid, gay, fat [and] ugly” and “he must die.” Another encouraged him to commit suicide, saying “It would make everyone way more happier.” Earlier this month, Rodemeyer posted online that no one at his school “cares about preventing suicide” and no one was listening to his pleas.
On Monday, September 19, Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide.
Setting aside the question of whether or not life really does get easier for LGBT people after their teenage years – a question increasingly more relevant as cultural conservatives once again attack LGBT rights to fire up their voter base – Rodemeyer’s suicide begs the question of whether or not telling LGBT youth that it gets better is enough.
Although the “It Gets Better Project’s” website includes a “get help” link to a toll-free phone number that LGBT youth can call if they need immediate counseling, the project’s main thrust is in its titular promise that if you’re being bullied at your school because of your sexuality, things will get better later. The problem with this approach, as so many LGBT youth suicides like Rodemeyer’s show, is that promises of things getting better later are simply not enough. These youth need things to get better right away.
The problem of youth suicides linked to bullying is hardly unique to the LGBT community. Last year, Mentor High School, near Cleveland, gained national attention because four of its students committed suicide in a span of just more than two years. All four were victims of bullying for different reasons: Sexual orientation, learning difficulty, ethnicity and simply liking to wear pink clothes.
Even as reports of youth suicide increase, we’re treated to the same worn-out excuses as to why nothing can supposedly be done to correct the problem. Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls. Being bullied “builds character.” The problem with the “It Gets Better” approach is that it feeds into these excuses: “Sorry you’re being bullied, but we can’t do much to help you now. Just wait a few years and things will get better.” Rodemeyer, and other youth suicides, couldn’t wait any longer, and their numbers will continue to grow unless something is done.
The idea that schools can’t do more to stop bullying is ridiculous. If schools can bar students from wearing t-shirts that say “I’m too cute to do homework,” then surely they can do more to stop students from mistreating one another. How can a school think that a few words on a shirt are more “disruptive to the learning environment” than words and actions that lead students to kill themselves? What is more “disruptive to the learning environment” than death?
No one has the right to force another person to think in a certain way. Some young people will always hate other young people because of their sexual orientation, or the color of their skin, or the clothes they wear, or anything else that makes one person different from another. But there is a difference between respecting someone and treating someone with respect, and schools have the right, if not the responsibility, to expect the latter from their students. Putting stricter rules in place to stop students from harassing, intimidating and otherwise bullying one another is not too much to ask, and if schools will not address this problem seriously, then parents need to pressure the schools to change before their children are the next ones in the news.
It is not enough to tell bullying victims that their lives will get better. We need to do all we can to make things better for them, and we need to do it now.