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Dan Savage: It Gets Worse For Kids Before It Gets Better

Jim Burroway

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.



August 17th, 2011 | LINK

I pray everyday for gay and lesbian youths. I remember how hard my teenage years were. Suicide was not out of the question. I bought into the baloney that if only I prayed hard enough and/or somehow someway my sexuality would change. I did not dare tell anyone what I was going through.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

I read a column by Mike S. Adams the other week on Townhall that infuriated me who condemned the anti-bullying campaign in today’s schools. The man claims to be a Christian and teaches criminality at UNC at Wilmington, NC.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

Something about this campaign, though important and well-intentioned, has always bothered me. Telling a pre-teen or teenager that it gets better in a few YEARS is like telling them that one day they will be eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

It’s time that someone with the skills, know how and time to do it, starts a “What are we going to do TODAY to make it better TODAY” campaign!

The current campaign seems to just accept that things can’t and shouldn’t get better NOW and that the ONLY answer to the unbearable pain, suffering and abuse that these kids are facing is thicker skin and patience.

I don’t know what the answer is and I think the “It Gets Better” campaign is a brilliant stop gap until the answer can be found, I just fear that too many people are seeing IGB as the ends rather than an emergency measure to stem the tide until the real issue can be addressed and resolved here and NOW.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

Fully agreed about where you live. I live in Oklahoma, by choice. I understand the desire to run away to a place that might be safer, friendly, more interesting, but if every different person leaves then nothing will ever change.

So, for now, Oklahoma it is.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

“If people in gay meccas talk about gay communities outside of their bubble — and that is a big if ”

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, I lived in the “gay mecca” of San Francisco, and now live in the “gay mecca” of Palm Springs,

and people talk about gay communities outside of the mecca’s all the time. They talk about escaping small town hate, and about the people gay and straight left behind.

“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 ”

If you lived in a gay mecca, you would quickly learn that even there, we cannot take a lot of things for granted either.

The experience in the mecca’s, for example, includes knowing that the violence homophobes know exactly where to go to find targets.

There is too much projection in your assumptions about gay life in SF, NYC, etc, and not enough interest in fact.

Russ Manley
August 17th, 2011 | LINK

@TampaZeke, I think you overstate the problem. Social Security you can’t get till you’re 65, which is several eternities away for a young teen; but it would have been a great help to me at that age to hear that in just three or four years, life would get better.

In point of fact, I do remember desperately wanting out of a somewhat unhappy family situation, and looking forward to having my own car, my own apartment, my own job and money etc. Which, within a few months of graduating from high school, I did achieve all that. None of it was related to homophobia/bullying, but the principle is the same, you see? Hope is a powerful help when you are stuck in a situation you have no control over, even if it takes a little patience and endurance; just knowing that the bad times WILL end in the foreseeable future – not the light-years distant Medicare future – gives you the encouragement you need to hang on.

The reason no one is doing an “It Gets Better NOW” campaign is because of the reason you youself stated: “I don’t know what the answer is.” And nobody else does either. Kids by virtue of being minors can’t leave home until they’re grown, that’s just reality.

But the good news, which is being publicized as well, is that in this day and time bullied kids CAN connect with others in the same situation via the internet, they CAN talk to counselors, and they CAN report the bullying to school authorities who in most states now are required to take action on that. And I agree with you that these “real-time” measures need to be emphasized.

But I keep thinking what an enormous help the IGBP videos would have been to me as a scared, isolated teen who thought he was the only person in the world with these feelings and these problems. We can’t wave a magic wand and make all kids happy everywhere, zing. But we can give them hope, and that’s terribly important.

Even as an adult, you can stand an awful lot of pain and sorrow if you have a genuine reason to hope that things will get better in the near future. And that’s what the IGBP videos do, which is a wonderful thing.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

I keep wondering why no one will discuss whether or not this bullying is an American phenomenon. I remember nothing like it from my school in London. Sure that had its faults and boys were bullied but not like this. I was in Denmark recently and talked about it with a teacher there who was appalled to hear what was going on. She found no correlation in Danish schools. And if this is an American problem what is it about America that causes it?

This is the most interesting and intelligent thing I’ve heard from Dan Savage. I’m not a fan of the It Gets Better campaign which, I think, has much more to do with making adults feel better about their own growing up. They reach back into the past to ennoble their own struggle against bullies. To throw off the mantle of cowardice that falls on those who don’t fight back: as if fighting back is always an option despite what American movies tell us is the truth about life. If it does help kids then that’s a wonderful thing.

I’ve lived in NYC, London and now in a very rural part of NY state. I don’t find life to be appreciably different. I was working in SanFrancisco which I thought charming if provincial in the way of a third tier European city. I had a good time in Tucson. My behaviors and expectations are shaped more by my age than geography. I felt safer in Nashville than Prague.

Savage’s notion that our out lives make it harder for others to hide is of course true. I’m not sure that means that kids bear the brunt. They have the internet today; they no longer have to grow up believing themselves to be the only one in the world as we did.

Without gay people living openly together in relatively safe and accepting cities the rest of the country doesn’t know what it can aspire to. Other ways of living are of course possible. No one way is best. Each informs the other.

Russ Manley
August 17th, 2011 | LINK

@Stephen, maybe you are just one of those lucky folks who live a charmed life. The BBC says two-thirds of gay kids in British schools suffer bullying:

Priya Lynn
August 17th, 2011 | LINK

Stephen said “I keep wondering why no one will discuss whether or not this bullying is an American phenomenon.”.

Well Stephen, I can tell you its no better in Canada.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

Russ, is it gay bullying? Maybe this has become a generational thing. All I can tell you is that in my day when I attended an all-boys public school the bullying was about being perceived as being physically weak. Being gay didn’t appear on the radar as all the boys were falling in love with each other and carrying on intense physical relationships behind our masters’ backs. Perhaps this is what Savage’s piece speaks to?

Priya Lynn, all I can say is that it doesn’t seem to such a degree in Europe. The UK doesn’t count as Europe.

But let’s be clear: bullying in any form is detestable.

Jim Burroway
August 17th, 2011 | LINK


Throughout the 80′s and 90′s, I lived in the “gay mecca” of San Francisco, and now live in the “gay mecca” of Palm Springs, and people talk about gay communities outside of the mecca’s all the time. They talk about escaping small town hate, and about the people gay and straight left behind.

Thank you for providing a perfect example of the one-sided view that I often hear from many of those living in gay meccas.

If you lived in a gay mecca, you would quickly learn that even there, we cannot take a lot of things for granted either.

Of course, which is why I included the example of gay bashings in Greenwich Village. Maybe you didn’t notice?

There is too much projection in your assumptions about gay life in SF, NYC, etc, and not enough interest in fact.

I conceed that there may be some projection, but I think I am pretty well informed about attitudes within the bubbles. My partner, for one, is a 15-year veteran of San Francisco. And we go back often. As I said, I love visiting, and every time we visit I am tempted to chuck it all and move there (assuming cost were no object, of course). But as part of our visits, we get into conversations in which the subject of where we live inevitably comes up. The views that we often hear about where we live are often quite cartoonish, and yet the people expressing them are earnestly sincere. If I believe people in gay meccas have a skewed vision of what it’s like to live elsewhere, it’s only because many of them share their sckewed visions with me whenever we talk.

I did make one mistake in the post above however. I wrote “If people in gay meccas,” when I should have written “If some people…” or “If many people…” (I lean toward the latter). I should not have implied that all people in gayborhoods are similarly myopic because I know full well that isn’t true. Not by any means. But yes, many are.

I’m reminded again of my great-grandmother. She grew up and spent her entire life in Appalachia, but wasn’t constrained by it. She travelled widely and read voraciously. I remember her telling me what a hick was: Someone who knew nothing about the larger world outside of their own community. And they didn’t care to learn anything about the world outside of their community because they thought they knew everything they needed to know. And by that definition, she remarked, “There are an awful lot of hicks in some mighty fancy places.”

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

I like that last paragraph. I am often conflicted about my own background. I grew up in southern WV and if you want to talk about prejudice, the people of that area suffer from it by the bucket load, even though, on average, there are some very bright people in that area, in part due to hard struggles. But I can also tell you that being gay there is alot harder and dangerous than living in Tucson or some other big city, gay mecca or not. I have a friend back there that I grately admire for sticking in there, but at a huge price. I won’t go back because I won’t put my life or my psychological well being at risk of the good religious people, some of whom are immediate family members, not something I have over worried about in Tucson. Savage is make some very good observations in this article, which makes me sad.

Timothy Kincaid
August 17th, 2011 | LINK

The views that we often hear about where we live are often quite cartoonish, and yet the people expressing them are earnestly sincere.

As an Angelino, I know that to be true.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

There is absolutely a project for making it beter now, it’s called the Make It Better Project.

I’ve followed them on Facebook, though I haven’t kept up with Facebook at all for a while and their website seems to be down right now, but hopefully not permanently. Here’s their YouTube channel:

Why haven’t you heard about this? Good question. No celebrity famewhore is attached to it as a spokesperson, for one thing, so it’s not as sexy as It Gets Better. Plus it involves actually doing something to help someone now instead of making a video telling someone to hope for something better later, so it’s too much work, maybe?

At any rate, I hope it’s actually still around, because this idea was actually brilliant and actually helpful.

August 17th, 2011 | LINK

@Russ, I don’t know how old you are but I think you, like many people, forget how you actually felt about “a few years” when you were 10 – 15 years old, especially when you were 10 – 12 years old (the age that many of these kids are killing themselves).

Think about it, when a 10 to 12 year old hears that things will “get better” when they turn 20 they are hearing that things will get better LITERALLY a lifetime from their current age. Ten years to a ten year old, and even a twelve year old, is the entire length of their life before they can hope for relief. That is a decree of hopelessness to these young people.

If I look at ten years from my current age (over 40 and I’ll say NO more!) it doesn’t seem like a big deal, ten years flies by in the blink of an eye, but I can’t apply my current perception to a kid’s, or teen’s, perception.

Russ Manley
August 18th, 2011 | LINK

Yes Stephen, we perceive time differently at different ages of life, and I know because I am past 50. But no, I have not fogotten what I thought and felt as a teen. Even then I was looking forward – like most kids do – to college, a car, a job, etc., etc. – and counting the days/weeks/months/years. Hope was indeed possible and hope kept me going through some very difficult times – some of it to do with my sexuality and some not.

But what is your point, buddy? What exactly is your point? We should not ever tell a young person that things will get better at a future date? That teenagers are incapable of comprehending future time? Incapable of hope? That’s absurd. What are you really saying here?

Donny D.
August 18th, 2011 | LINK

Has it ever been determined that the It Gets Better project helps beleaguered TBLG primary or secondary school students to cope? I’m not ready to assume that it does without evidence.

Priya Lynn
August 18th, 2011 | LINK

Well Donny, at least its not hurting. Better to make an effort without verification of success than to say “I won’t make an effort because there’s no verification of success.”.

August 18th, 2011 | LINK

Russ, I don’t know who Stephen is but I’ll assume you were addressing me. I stated what I was trying to say in my first comment. I’m sorry if you are incapable reading it or comprehending it. I said that I believe the IGB campaign is brilliant for a “stop gap” emergency action but it shouldn’t be seen as the end game solution to the problem. As is often the case, people do the feel good thing to quickly aleve themselves of their grief or guilt (see Haiti) but such action is often, in the long run, counterproductive because it allows people to do the quick, feel good fix, at the expense of the long term resolution that people, feeling good, don’t pursue (see Haiti). I’m not saying that this was the intention of IGB. It wasn’t. The intention was good and much good has come of it, but it’s just a step, not the resolution.

If you don’t understand this re-explanation then I can’t help you understand me any better; not that I believe you are really concerned with understanding what I said.

August 18th, 2011 | LINK

Russ, you responded to “Stephen” but your comment was clearly directed at me.

Russ Manley
August 18th, 2011 | LINK

Sorry, Zeke, I had also responded to Stephen – see above – and momentarily repeated his name in my post to you.

Despite the occasional typo, I can read quite well, thank you. You said when a 10 year old hears things will get better when he’s 20 that’s a lifetime away.

Granted; so what is your solution, your “resolution to the problem”? If you have one, why don’t you get to work on it, eh? If it’s reasonably sensible, I might even join you.

But don’t be like so many gay men I have known who are sooooo fond of criticizing somebody else’s work without lifting one finger themselves to do anything, whether to decorate for a party or fight for equality.

And that’s all I have to say on this well-labored point now.

August 19th, 2011 | LINK

I find the suggestion that increased gay visibility has changed the nature of bullying to be quite odd, no, more queer than odd. Ahem.

I was getting called “queer” and “faggot” before Stonewall and so was musical Mark and awkward Jim and puny Mike (all kids in my grade school class — I was the nerd). Now, it’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that our various tormentors didn’t imagine us actually sucking cock (we were, after all, 11 years old), but it requires a very odd perspective to believe that they didn’t think they we were destined to do so later in life.

April 17th, 2012 | LINK

As usual, whenever there is injustice or bigotry, it is the most vulnerable members of our society who suffer the worst. LGBTQ youth (actual or perceived) HAVE to be protected. I’ve just learned that here in Texas one of the Religious Reich candidates for the State Board of Education (Right-wingers dominate the Texas SBOE) has unveiled a “10-step program” to stop “homosexual recruitment in our schools” (read: anti-bullying campaigns). This will be a long, hard fight, and I’m afraid there will be more casualties ahead.

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