It Gets Better, the book: A “message in a bottle” to LGBT youth

Posted originally at Bent Alaska

Summer 1978, Columbia Falls, Montana. I was 19 years old, back at home after my freshman year in college, working at the local aluminum reduction plant to earn money toward the following year’s tuition — and trying to figure out if I really was, as I had started figuring out back at college, a lesbian. I had no one to talk with about it — no friends I could trust with this stuff…and family? — family was even scarier. Nowhere to get any information, either — there were no blogs, no YouTube, no Internet at all.

"Lesbian/Woman" by Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon I did, finally, locate in a used bookstore in Kalispell (our county seat) a copy of the feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful (1970), which included two essays by lesbians. One of them was by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the first lesbian rights organization in the U.S., Daughters of Bilitis, and authors of the landmark book Lesbian/Woman (1972). I can’t remember who wrote the other one.

Those two essays were all the information I had — that, and the information from my own heart — upon which to base the decision of whether to accept myself as a lesbian or not.

But they made a difference, maybe even the difference that helped keep me from giving up. While I didn’t think of it at the time, these women — Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, and the author whose name I don’t remember — were lesbian elders, teaching me, a lesbian youth, that it was okay to be me, okay for me to love myself, and that as hard as things were for me at the time, they would get better. And they did.

Fast forward to September 2010 and the birth of the It Gets Better Project. We wrote about it then: after a rash of suicides by gay kids who had been bullied and harassed by their peers, Savage Love columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller made a YouTube video to let LGBT kids know that however tough their teenage years, please hold on: it will get better. Two months later, there were over 10,000 videos giving kids that message, and the numbers continue to grow.

It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth LivingThing is, not every kid has access to YouTube. And so Dan Savage and Terry Miller have now compiled a book: about 100 selected accounts from the It Gets Better Project, now in print as It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, published just last week. I downloaded a copy into my Kindle for iPhone app last Thursday.

In his introduction to the book, Dan Savage eloquently expresses the frustration a lot of us LGBT adults have had as we were forced to stand idly by while homophobic parents, ministers, teachers, and kids battered the hell out of the bodies and spirits of LGBT youth:

The culture used to offer this deal to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: You’re ours to torture until you’re eighteen. You will be bullied and tormented at school, at home, at church — until you’re eighteen. Then, you can do what you want. You can come out, you can move away, and maybe, if the damage we’ve done isn’t too severe, you can recover and build a life for yourself. There’s just one thing you can’t do after you turn eighteen: You can’t talk to the kids we’re still torturing, the LGBT teenagers being assaulted emotionally, physically, and spiritually in the same cities, schools, and churches you escaped from. And if you do attempt to talk to the kids we’re still torturing, we’ll impugn your motives, we’ll accuse you of being a pedophile or pederast, we’ll claim you’re trying to recruit children into “the gay lifestyle.”

That was the old order and it fell apart when the It Gets Better Project went viral. Suddenly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults all over the world — all over the world — were speaking to LGBT youth. We weren’t waiting for permission anymore. We found our voices.

The project, of course, cannot solve all the problems of anti-LGBT bullying in school — much less the self-hatred fostered by homophobic preachers and their believers who are, all too often, the family members and “friends” of trans, bi, gay, and lesbian kids. Dan Savage acknowledged as much in his introduction, and also in an interview last week with the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

There are kids in situations of extreme isolation, where all we can do is put the message in a bottle and throw it to the sea and give them hope for the future.

But sometimes that message in a bottle makes all the difference — as it did for me. And so this story, which Savage told to NPR’s Terri Gross last week on “Fresh Air”

Forty percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT kids who were thrown out after they came out or were outed. And you know, a huge problem, something that makes the bullying of gay youth very different from the bullying of other kids – and other kids are bullied – is that often the families are active participants in the bullying.

You know, LGBT kids are four times likelier to attempt suicide. If their families reject them or are hostile, they’re eight times likelier. And this girl wrote to say that she’s 15, she tried to come out. Her parents freaked out, threatened to throw her out of the house, threatened to not let her see her siblings anymore, not pay for her education.

And so she went back in the closet and told them that she made a mistake, that she was just a tomboy and was confused and thought that meant she had to be a lesbian when she grew up but that she was wrong.

And she wrote me to tell me that she was watching the videos, and they were really helping her be strong and filling her with hope that her family could come around, because a lot of the videos, and now the essays in the book, are by people who had – whose families had similar reactions and then came around and are now supportive.

And she wrote to tell me that the videos were keeping her sane and she was watching them in her room at night, under the covers, on her iPad. And so that one email for me really captures the reach and power of this project, that LGBT adults are able to talk to this girl and give her hope for her future and for her family, give her hope that her family will heal, and talk to her whether her parents want us to or not.

Buy the book: for yourself, for your kids’ school library, for your church or other faith organization. You can also contribute to the It Gets Better Project’s effort to get copies of the book into every high school library in the country.

Here’s Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s video about the book:

P.S. I’m happy to say that my family turned out to be not quite as scary as I thought they were in the summer of 1978. I love them all.

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