It Gets Better Promotes Hazardous Quietism Among At-Risk Population

Benjamin Morrison, Columnist

I should preface this article by saying that I think Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, a suicide-prevention project for LGBTQ youth, is saving lives. I have no evidence for this except common sense and Savage’s anecdotes. Given how young It Gets Better is, such evidence will have to suffice.

It Gets Better may also be killing people. Perhaps this language is too strong, but the implications of the project’s message and its very title are unacceptably dangerous to LGBTQ youth in situations of life-threatening violence.

In his speech last Thursday, Savage said that It Gets Better grew out of a wish to speak to LGBTQ youth experiencing bullying and harassment in order to reduce suicide rates among that population. “I wish I could have talked to that kid,” Savage said. “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 wants to tell LGBTQ youth to wait out their misery for the rewards of adulthood. Savage wants to let LGBTQ youth know that, despite the bullying and harassment they endure daily at school, at church, in the home and on the street, they should not kill themselves, but instead wait for the better time after their 18th birthdays. In his speech, Savage identified anti-LGBTQ bullying as the cause of suicides among LGBTQ youth. I define bullying as a situation of psychological, emotional, sexual and/or physical violence. If a potential outcome of anti-LGBTQ bullying is suicide, then the routine experience of such bullying is by definition life-threatening.

It Gets Better thus promotes a dangerous quietism among at-risk populations. Though it ostensibly reduces suicide rates, It Gets Better may unintentionally encourage teens to remain in situations of life-threatening violence instead of removing themselves to more secure environments. Furthermore, suicide is but one outcome of such violence. By telling youth to stay in life-threatening environments and to suffer present pain for future, compensatory joy, It Gets Better puts those teens at increased risk for other forms of violence, such as physical abuse, sexual violence and even murder. Certainly, we would never say “It gets better” to a person experiencing domestic violence. Is It Gets Better really the best message to send to these kids?

At the very least, I want Savage to re-brand It Gets Better. I want a message that empowers all youth — both LGBTQ and allies — to change their conditions, to extract themselves from life-threatening violence and to help their peers in similar situations. It Gets Better leaves change to the mysterious machinations of time, a process so passive and so abstract that it must be isolated in that bland verb “get.” Why not “You Can Make It Better”? Or the succinct command “Make It Better!”? Such a message transfers the process of social change from time to the individual, and the epoch of social change from the future to the present.

Just 24 hours before Savage spoke, Gloria Steinem told us to live now as we want to live after the revolution. Savage tells LGBTQ youth the opposite: Endure a wretched situation for later rewards. Which do LGBTQ youth need? Which will save lives?