What if it Doesn’t Get Better?

Olga Wolstenholme's picture

If you’re hooked on facebook, youtube  and the like chances are you’ve heard about the sudden rash of kids that have committed suicide because of the persecution they’ve had to endure at school due to their sexual orientation. First off, when I say “sudden” I’m being slightly facetious (just a little) because all though this has gotten a lot of media attention it’s not like it’s anything new. Teenagers have been offing themselves for years and queer kids (and when I say queer in this instance, I mean anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘norm’ whatever it happens to be any given day) have been bullied and teased and made all around miserable forever, or at least it seems that way. This whole thing has gotten a lot of media attention and youtube videos have popped up (something started by Dan Savage) under the campaign “It Gets Better” wherein people have been telling their own stories about how life gets better after high school. It’s true that high school is a notoriously bad time for lots of people and although the message of hope that the “It Gets Better” campaign is sending out to kids is a good things in of itself, there are still some inherent problems with the whole thing that just doesn’t sit right with a lot of people.

Quiet Riot Girl, for one, has been annoyed with Dan Savage all week. She’s written several posts about her annoyance and I gotta say, although I’m not familiar with the guy, she makes some good points or at least raises some interesting questions. Her post It Gets Better: What Does? For Whom? addresses some of the aforementioned problems that exist with the “It Gets Better Campaign”.

I particualrly like this passage:

Many many young people are confused and isolated for many reasons. Their identity becomes bound up in sexuality and gender during adolescence, well, even earlier than that. And this can be very challenging. But to lump all that confusion, isolation, and yes, sometimes cruelty and bullying, together as affecting ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ young people, is misguided and misleading in my view. Associating teenage angst and alienation with a ‘deviant’ sexual identity, and expecting those teenagers to hold onto that sexual identity for the rest of their lives, I think, is just as much a problem as things like homophobia and bullying. Some ‘queer’ kids are so keen to avoid getting stuck with that deviant identity that they are the ones that act in a homophobic bullying way. Some people don’t experience same sex desire until adulthood. Some people sail through high school as a ‘normal’ ‘popular’ kid and then have a really shit time later on, partly because of who they happen to fall in love with*

*Raises Hand.

So to the sentiment of ‘it gets better’ I still ask  ’what does? and for whom?’ Not to be negative about people with diverse sexual experiences and identities,  and not to make such a song and dance about ‘privilege’. But to be open-minded about life, love and young people’s sense of who they are, and who they might be. And to resist this ever-encroaching culture of homogenity, whereby if someone who seems to have influence in liberal, socially-aware circles does something, the consensus has to be that it must be A Good Thing. Because it is campaigning against Bad Things. (Quiet Riot Girl)

In her blog post, Quiet Riot Girl, also points us to another blog article, by Femmephare over at Temps Contre Temps, that is well worth the read. It clearly identifies some of the key problems that can be found within the “It Gets Better” project.

It’s not enough to just tell someone it gets better (with time), you have to tell them how. Improving any kind of situation comes with change, comes with action. How did you make your life better? Tell me how. Maybe that won’t be the course of action that makes everyone’s life better, but it’s a start. It’s an option. Telling someone it gets better after high school, or that it gets better with time, implies a kind of non-action where all you have to do is wait it out before one day waking up happy. Fuck that, happy takes work. It also implies that there’s nothing we can do to improve the lives of those in high school, that they are shit out of luck, have to tough it out and magically upon graduation free themselves of all the preceding bullshit. Life doesn’t exactly work that way. Time, time, time, always telling someone it takes time and that with time all will get better, but what if it doesn’t? What if it takes me more time than it did you, does that mean there’s something wrong with me?

Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how. (Femmephare)

I (at the age of 29) can watch the “It Gets Better Video” and feel touched or moved or even entertained by their story (ies), but I don’t know that I would have had the same reaction as a teenager. When you find yourself in the middle of that turmoil the last thing you want to hear is another person trying to offer you “perspective” by telling you their problems. I reached out to a friend one day when I was on the verge of suicide and when all the pain was gushing out of me she countered everything I said with one of her problems. I told her “this isn’t a competition”, she said she was “offering me perspective”. I didn’t need perspective, I needed someone to listen. To see me.

And listening– way more listening. Because telling your personal story of adversity from a place of privilege, might have a lot of applications, might be asked of you perpetually, might seem alluring because it’s so often milked from us. But it’s not the way. Saying, “I know how you feel, because I used to feel that way, and let me tell you, I don’t feel that way anymore,” doesn’t help, it hurts. You’re dwelling in the present. Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future. (Femmephare)

I like telling stories and I like hearing other people’s stories and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Some might consider it a pretty passive form of activism, but storytelling is one hell of a good way to make others and yourself feel something, to make others (and yourself) understand something, but it’s always a good idea to ask yourself what that something is and what it’s motivated by. I’m not suggesting that “It Gets Better” is a bad campaign and that it should be stopped, but merely that there are things we should consider and questions we should ask and perspectives we should always take into account instead of jumping to the “consensus [...] that it must be A Good Thing. Because it is campaigning against Bad Things.”

(Posted at Cuntlove)

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Comments

When you find yourself in

When you find yourself in the middle of that turmoil the last thing you want to hear is another person trying to offer you “perspective” by telling you their problems. I reached out to a friend one day when I was on the verge of suicide and when all the pain was gushing out of me she countered everything I said with one of her problems. I told her “this isn’t a competition”, she said she was “offering me perspective”. I didn’t need perspective, I needed someone to listen. To see me.

I can't even tell you how much this resonates with me. I have a ton of things I want to say and can't seem to make it all coherent, damn it. I had a decent sized group of friends up until shortly before my second suicide attempt, at age 24. One of the things that made it all so hard is that I tried to reach out, repeatedly, to different friends, but none of them was interested in just listening. My feelings were minimized and dismissed, every statement I made seemed like an opportunity to one-up me with how bad they had it and look at them, they weren't crying about it. The worst part of it all was that I was everyone else's shoulder to cry on.

I would love a campaign that taught people how to listen and respond when someone they know is having trouble.

Anything else I can think to say at this point has been said elsewhere, especially by Femmephare, far better than I could hope to.

Thank you, thank you, thank

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.  Like the previous commenter, I found a real lack of support when I was young and queer, even from my friends (some of whom were real liberal queers themselves).  Telling a person it will get better without listening to that person's reasons on why they think it won't is downright perplexing to me.  I'd like to see a campaign for listening, hand-holding, and combating the stigma of mental illness. 

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