Dan Savage, founder of the It Gets Better Project and author of sex column “Savage Love,” gave what he referred to as the “spacey Theraflu version of his speech” to a crowd of students Thursday in Finney Chapel amidst concern from some student LGBTQ activists.
The It Gets Better Project began as a YouTube video of Savage and his husband telling their story to LGBT youth. After posting their video, they waited. The response was, according to Savage, overwhelming. By the fourth day, there were 500 video responses. Since then, over 10,000 videos have been linked to the YouTube site. According to the campaign website, the aim of the project is to reach out to queer youth and show them what the future may hold.
With the help of multiple co-sponsors, Lambda Union brought Savage to campus. Sam McCright, a College first-year who spearheaded the effort to get Savage to campus, said that despite Oberlin’s general openness as a student body, the message of the It Gets Better Project is still very relevant to students here.
“A lot of it is about feeling trapped where you are. We’re a college with college-aged kids who might have just come from somewhere where they had felt trapped. This might just be the opening-up part.”
Savage, in an interview with the Review, said that the string of LGBT teen suicides last year encouraged the creation of the project, starting with those of Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas. “A 15-year-old kid who kills himself because he’s gay and is bullied, what he’s saying is that he can’t picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain he’s in now. As a gay adult who got through that stage in my life, including a suicidal little chunk of my life, I heard about Aaberg and Lucas and felt helpless and angry and had the reaction that so many gay adults have when we hear of these stories — ‘I wish I could have talked to that kid, I wish I would have been able to tell him “Hang in there” and tell him that it will get better and that there will be enough joy to compensate for the pain you’re in now,’” Savage said.
In the age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Savage said he realized he was waiting for permission to talk to LGBT youth that he didn’t need. “I could record a YouTube video and talk to these kids, look into the camera and talk to them directly.”
Though Savage was seemingly well received by most in attendance, many students involved in LGBTQ activism on campus expressed reservations about Savage, his history of insensitivity toward certain LGBTQ issues and the messages of his campaign.
Sien Rivera, College sophomore and board member of the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People and student liaison for Queers and Allies of Faith, said that there are both positive and negative elements to the It Gets Better Project.
“While [the campaign message] is certainly very helpful for students who are in immediate danger of hurting themselves or feeling completely depressed, the message that it gives is one that isn’t necessarily the most productive in terms of actually changing spaces,” Rivera said.
Taylor Johnson, College sophomore and organizer of Zami, a student organization promoting women working together, said that she feels the message of the campaign isn’t relevant to Oberlin students and that, like Rivera, the message of the campaign does not encourage the making of change. “Every so often people try to focus on one issue and I guess the issue now is bullying. I haven’t really seen bullying of queer people on this campus. I guess it’s relevant in other places, but not here. I also think that it encourages complacency in some senses, in the lexical sense, of looking at It Gets Better. Right now you struggle, but in the future it gets better, so just wait.”
In addition to concerns about the message of the campaign, Savage, according to Rivera, who is also a member of TransAdvocacy and student worker at the Multicultural Resource Center, represents a particular segment of the queer community and is not able to speak to many of the issues that LGBTQ youth face.
“The message is ‘Hold it out and get away from home,’ and that it’ll get better whatever college you go to. Also [the message is] not really acknowledging that it doesn’t get better for everybody. Obviously it’s easier for someone who comes from a privileged background, someone who is cisgender or who is white or male, and it’s not necessarily as easy for someone who is not any of those things,” Rivera said.
Savage, who addressed the concern that for some it “doesn’t get better,” said he doesn’t think that notion is “constructive, helpful or true.”
He also said, “There’s this idea that the project is by and for white, gay men, which is a sexist and racist accusation when you go to the website. Look at the videos — it is a group effort and an open source project. Anyone who claims that there aren’t voices of people of color, the poor, people of all classes, that there aren’t trans people in there, that there aren’t sex-radicals in there is a liar. They’re just a fucking liar.”
Rivera also said that Savage is a divisive figure in the queer community. “There will be a number of students who are very uncomfortable with things that he’s said. Dan has a history of being racist, of being transphobic, of blaming survivors of sexual assault for their assaults and of being biphobic.”
In response to such accusations, Savage replied, “Fuck you.”
Savage went on to say, “I’ve written a column for 20 years, and mostly the column is jokes. When I shift gears and do something serious, it can be hard for some people to make the leap. I understand that I’m an imperfect messenger, but the perfect messenger didn’t do this and didn’t come along. I can go point-by-point and defend what I’ve been accused of being a racist as baseless bullshit and accused of being transphobic, which is baseless bullshit. Trans voices are all over the It Gets Better Project and we just finished editing a column in the It Gets Better book, which I think has 12 columns by transgender people in it. So, if I’m transphobic I really have a weird way of showing it. And [those who hold those views about me] can suck my dick.”
McCright said that despite concerns of what some perceive to be Savage’s views, the campaign still holds merit. “He might hold those issues, but that doesn’t mean that what he has to say about suicide isn’t perfectly relevant.”