How ‘It Gets Better’ Is Making It Better

Published in: September-October 2011 issue.

ONE of the most uplifting responses to the wave of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of 2010 was the “It Gets Better” campaign launched by columnist Dan Savage. Conceived as a way to use the Internet, especially You Tube, to nurture GLBT youths through their teenage years, the initiative has elicited gay-positive videos from politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and athletes from such teams as the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants.

As with any groundbreaking initiative, the “It Gets Better” campaign has been misunderstood and questioned by some. One radical San Francisco group issued a statement saying: “And for the love of Judy Garland’s Ghost … stop saying ‘It Gets Better’ and hoping for a miracle from up on high.” These naysayers labor under the misconception that the campaign counsels reliance on the mere passage of time. But even if “It Gets Better” were taken to mean “wait it out,” that would still be worthwhile. Studies have shown that anti-gay bullying spikes during the middle school years and becomes less frequent as the high school years progress.

Still, a passive posture toward bullying would imperil too many lives to allow us to sit by. Research demonstrates that bullying can do lasting damage. Bullying correlates with higher levels of social anxiety in adulthood, which can impair a person’s ability to form healthy relationships and can also limit career options. Moreover, bullying during adolescence is a known risk factor for depression in adulthood, which means that for many targets the specter of suicide will not automatically recede over time.

No one with knowledge of gay and lesbian history could entertain the delusion that the vast social changes since the Stonewall Riots in 1969 happened by themselves, or that patient resignation will deliver us from our tormentors. Dan Savage’s approach revives the approach of Harvey Milk, who offered hope to the cohort of GLBT youth that came of age in the 1970’s. Steering at-risk youths away from suicide, he espoused optimism against the tide of anti-gay crusades led by Anita Bryant and John Briggs. Milk was upbeat during a darker time because he had faith that our community, once mobilized, could transform the world.

The life-affirming promise of better times ahead is justified because our movement has already succeeded in making the world a more equitable place. Instead of invoking “Judy Garland’s Ghost” and taking potshots at a heroic effort to save lives, critics should join the work of promoting safe schools. As we make it so, things will indeed get better.


Don Gorton is co-author of “Direct from the Field: A Guide to Bullying Prevention” and chair of the Anti-Violence Project of Mass.