Dan Savage: It Gets Worse For Kids Before It Gets Better
August 17th, 2011
Dan Savage spoke with Salon’s Kerry Lauerman:
One of the things I like about your podcast so much is you do spend a lot of time talking to people outside urban elite areas — you spent a lot of time last year talking about Constance McMillen, for example – where life for gays hasn’t evolved that quickly.
One of the things that was a wake-up call for me last year before the “It Gets Better” campaign — why we launched it, my husband and I — was when I was sort of unaware how bad it was getting out there. You know, in the Greensburg, Indianas, and the Topachakees, Californias, where Constance McMillen was. What I didn’t realize before those suicides opened my eyes, was that as it was getting better in New York or San Francisco or Seattle, it was getting worse out in the sticks, out in mega-church land. Because those of us who are out and urban and fully integrated into our work lives and families, our existence has made it impossible for queer 14-year-olds to fly under the radar in a Greensburg.
When I was a kid, and I was odd, the default assumption was that I was odd, not that I was gay. Now when a kid is odd in a Greensburg, gay or straight, the default assumption is gay. Because my job requires me to be in constant communication with people all over the country who are writing in to “Savage Love,” calling the podcast, I think I’m a little more conscious of what’s going on out there in the boonies — but even I didn’t see that. And that’s a bitter pill for those of us my age to swallow. Us out there leading our lives and being successful have actually kind of made it worse for 14-year-old gay kids in Greensburg, Ind.
Well, made it worse, but that’s part of progress, right?
Absolutely. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have lived this way, or we shouldn’t have come out. And the people who are most responsible for making it worse are of course anti-gay politicians and anti-gay preachers, and parents, teachers and peers who are persecuting these kids. But we’ve created a kind of hyper-awareness about sexuality and sexual orientation that has let to hyper-scrutiny about those things, in places where people weren’t on the lookout for it before. Everybody’s on the lookout for it now.
I think this exchange highights two important issues. First is that while it’s impossible to overstate the importance of gay visibility, there is an inevitable backlash element that goes with it, and that backlash is probably disproportionately borne by gay youth. Adults suffer too, but youth typically have far fewer means with which to cope and may not have a supportive network of family and friends to rely on. I think Savage’s observation that the old default of “odd” is now a default of “gay” whether the kid is actually gay or not is very perceptive.
But the other thing here, just below the surface, is that there is something of a divide within the gay community between those living in gay meccas and the rest of us living elsewere. There is a huge part of me that would love to live in San Francisco, L.A., D.C. or New York. I love visiting those cities, but I also know how easy it is to get caught up in a bubble and loose footing with what’s really going on elsewhere in the country. If people in gay meccas talk about gay communities outside of their bubble — and that is a big if — the talk too often goes in one of two directions: either that of course gays everywhere enjoy the freedoms found in the meccas, or that of course gays everywhere else are being burned out of their homes or cowering in their basements. That’s why I believe that living in a retrograde state like Arizona is actually an advantage to me. I do think that if I were to move to a major gay enclave, that I would develop a sort of laryngitis and lose an important part of my voice that comes from living in an area where we can’t take a lot of things for granted — but also where we aren’t exactly powerless rubes living in constant fear in our semi-closeted existences.
Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign has done more to unite the gay community across all areas of the country than any other project I can think of. Yes, it sucks to be a gay kid in Greensburg, but the downside of increased visibility means that it also sucks to be a gay kid at a prestigious urban university. There are gay bashings in Greenwich Village, but gay visibility will take yet another step into the spotlight with pride celebrations in Bedford Suyvesant and in Santorum’s back yard in Allentown, PA, this weekend. And in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District, where gay suicides have been met with a collective shrug, three hundred brave souls showed up for the first gay pride event there last weekend. It is getting better, but with each advance there is a backlash and our youth are bearing the brunt of it. And as Savage’s interview demonstrates, part of making it better is for opinion-makers to spend much, much more time outside of the bubble.