Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign utilizes social media to empower LGBTQ youth

A great tragedy is currently sweeping America’s youth: people are alarmed and suddenly terrified of the environment that young people are living in. With six suicides in September, all by out gay male students, or those suspected of being gay, this is no longer an issue but an absolute crisis. Seattle-based writer and Savage Love advice columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller have started a Youtube channel focused on encouraging gay youth to stay strong and not be driven to the fatal endings the late teens met. The project is titled “It Gets Better”, with the focus on encouraging and reassuring LGBTQ youth and children that although their high school lives may be incredibly terrible with bullying and abuse, the future can be a much brighter place if they hold out for it.

"I think what we're waking up to, in rural areas and suburbs," Savage explains, “Is that things are getting worse. We've been subjected to a 15-year anti-gay hate campaign, dehumanizing and bashing gays and lesbians. There are no gays and lesbian adults in these suburbs, out in the sticks. Look at where Asher Brown, Cody Barker, and Justin Aaberg lived: very small towns, very isolated, very rural. It's gotten worse out there, where it's gotten better in metropolitan and media centres.” Dan Savage has recently proved himself a worthy voice of a generation. 

On the morning of July 9, 2010, Tammy Aaberg, of rural Anoka, Minnesota went to wake up her son Justin. Upon entering his room, she discovered that the 15-year-old boy had hanged himself. The late teen's friends have since contacted Tammy, informing her of Justin's constant bullying in school, and the sadness he faced in a recent break up with his boyfriend. Sadly, this case is just one of many that have been occurring throughout the suburbs and small American towns, particularly throughout the last couple months. 

On September 9, Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana, another 15-year-old, hanged himself in his family's barn after constantly going to school hearing jeers like "fag" day in and out. 17-year-old openly gay Cody Barker of Shiocton, Wisconsin took his own life on September 13, despite his involvement in a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. On September 19, Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from Tehachapi, California, hanged himself in his yard. On September 22, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old from Ridgewood, New Jersey, drove to the George Washington Bridge and jumped into the Hudson River. On September 23, 13-year-old Asher Brown of Houston, Texas, shot himself after what one of his friends called "years of bullying." On September 29, 19-year-old Raymond Chase, of Monticello, New York, hanged himself in his Providence, Rhode Island dorm room.

Since Savage and Miller uploaded their original "It Gets Better" video on September 21, it has generated over 600,000 hits. The clip shows the couple sitting together in a cafe, looking lovingly at each other as each one explains how horrible their own high school experience was. They then go on to tell the viewer that life gets so much better the day high school ends. The two speak with confidence and promise, giving young gay people some form of reassurance and an idea that may positively affect their possibly dark thoughts. That is the whole goal – to stop future gay teens from taking their own lives. The title “It Gets Better” holds a simple but promising message. 

The project has been garnered immense support and public interest. When I contacted Savage for an interview, he agreed, though his media liaison noted they received over 90 requests in just three days. Calling from his hotel in Chicago, where he is promoting the project, Savage spoke with courage and clarity. "Suicide in gay teenagers was kind of always on my mind," he says. "With Savage Love, I get emails pretty regularly from gay teenagers who are unhappy and being bullied." Savage noted that when he first heard of Justin Aaberg's suicide, he realized it was the time for change. "I had the reaction of 'God, I wish I could have talked to that kid for five minutes, and tell him it gets better.' I was getting more and more angry I couldn't talk to those kids. I never get an invitation to talk to a student body to reach these isolated kids. I was waiting for permission or invitation, but I realized I don't need that permission. I realized in this era, I could speak to these kids right now through social media." 

Although the project is only in its infancy, the messages in the words are already making a world of difference to scores of young gay kids out there, feeling like they have no outlet of understanding. Savage is right in that social media is the perfect avenue in these desperate times. Many gay children and youth, particularly ones growing up in rural areas, will have no person to turn to, but most of these young people will have access to the Internet. Savage says, “There are some things we can't fix. Can you open a support center in Greensburg, Indiana without it getting firebombed or having only three people who use it? The Internet can link up the bigger towns and people in small towns who are similarly isolated. There is nowhere to go in Shiocton, Wisconsicn. There may never be, it's just a fact. We can't support gay community infrastructure. So with online outreach, if someone is trapped there, because that's where his parents live, they can find support and help.” 

“It Gets Better” does promote a good message, but an obvious question to naysayers of the project and to those who are really struggling is what these kids can do in the meantime. In Seth Walsh or Asher Brown's case, that could have meant another five years of possible torment. Obviously every case is a bit different. Savage elaborates, “Even though I doubted my family's love, and I wasn't out to them, I had a good strong family. I found theatre. I got out of my Catholic all boys high school, and into Chicago's community theatre when I was a teenager. I was first exposed to openly gay adults who seemed just fine and respected by people they were working with. Seeing them interact with people gave me hope. I was lucky in one other way. You know, I was 13 in 1977, a long time ago, and there weren't as many positive images out there ... there weren't any reflecting how it felt. But there was always a voice in my head that said 'you're fine. Everyone else is fucked up about the gay thing, you're fine.' I had some emotional immune system protected against anti-gay messages I was getting and against bullying and harassment I experienced.” 

This type of determination and confidence has paid off for Savage in a huge way. His Savage Love column is printed in newspapers across America, Europe and Asia, and has been continually building momentum since first appearing in Seattle's The Stranger in 1991. In 2006, he launched a weekly Savage Love podcast, and recently launched an iPhone app. He has since become the editorial director of The Stranger, and has published four books. His name is common in many households, and he therefore holds a fair share of clout, particularly in relationship and sex issues. Given his inclusion in most weekly segments relating to LGBT and equality, Savage seems like the perfect poster boy for “It Gets Better”, but he didn't have to do it alone. 

Savage's partner, Terry Miller, has come out of the woodwork for “It Gets Better”, appearing in public media alongside Savage for the first time. Savage says “My boyfriend's very media shy. I've been sort of in the public eye, but he's a really private person, and never allowed photos of us as a family group to be released. It says something about this crisis, that my boyfriend, who if you Googled him until now you couldn't find a photo of him, wanted to do something. He is so heartbroken and appalled, still, 20 years after high school.” 

Despite Miller’s public shyness and Savage’s often boisterous candor, the two are not alone in this fight. Hundreds of videos have been uploaded to Youtube and added to the It Gets Better channel. Among these are a handful of videos of public figures, both gay and straight, promoting the cause. From Project Runway's Tim Gunn's emotional revelations of an attempted suicide as a 17-year-old to Neil Patrick Harris's reassurance that the grass is greener as an individual post-high school, celebrities are pouring out messages of love and support. Savage points out that these stamps of approval are important for getting the message out, but not the be all and end all of the project.  

“I think [the celebrity videos are] a really powerful statement, absolutely,” he says. "What came first, though, were literally hundreds of videos of average every day gays and lesbians. Before celebrities, and more power to them, it was average everyday people who started posting their videos. Perez Hilton did one and encouraged celebrity pals to do the same, and I'm delighted. Chris Colfer, Tim Gunn ... people look to them, it helps kids to know famous people have their back. But it's more important that average everyday gay adults make them ... poor rural lesbian farmers in Vermont, doctors in Vancouver, pastors in New Hampshire: openly gay people from all over the world, of all walks of life. That is what I find tremendously moving.” 

In addition to those uploading videos, there are many people interested in the cause, offering handouts to Savage and his team. "It's charming, but it's a Youtube channel which is free. We don't need any money," he explains. "When a 15-year-old gay boy commits suicide, he's saying 'I can't picture life in the future with enough joy in it to endure what I'm going through right now.'" Savage is directing anyone interested in offering donations to take their funds to another similar minded group, The Trevor Project. A 24-hour phone hotline, The Trevor Project operates to LGBTQ youth who need a voice or an ear. Operating around the clock costs money, and Savage feels the donations to this group are necessary. 

"We are encouraging people to make donations to the Trevor Project. Making a video doesn't include or preclude us from doing more. We need to project anti bullying programs in the schools. [“It Gets Better”] doesn't fix it or stop bullying in the schools. That's going to take time and going to be solved some places faster than others. If we push for school legislation, it helps to get the message out there." Savage claims that the video project is a great starting point, for "parents, preachers and teachers showing life can be good, you can be loved. [Gay youth] are absolutely finding their way to these videos. We're hearing from parents. It's supportive, it's working. But it's not the only thing we should do." 

When Savage and Miller initiated the project, they had no clue what they were in for. "We hoped that we'd get a couple dozen videos and it would help somebody and it would do something. Honest to god, we're kind of overwhelmed. It's just me and my boyfriend, and there are hundreds of [videos being uploaded]. We've been doing nothing else around the clock for two weeks. There's a backlog growing, and we're also working with a big social media company to relaunch the website." 

Although only in its early stages, Savage already sees the success of “It Gets Better” relying on the use of social media. He goes on to explain, "It's like when celebrities wore red ribbons to the Emmys or Oscars. Where are those ribbons now? They're in landfills. People have new causes now, and rightfully so. Not one cause can be in front and focus at all time. But you know what? These videos are not going to exist in a landfill. Five and 10 years from now, kids can find these videos and add to the project, as people need these kinds of insights and support. It's a little like the red ribbons: Kathy Griffin's video, Anne Hathaway's video, Chris Colfer's video: they're gonna be there forever, not just through the award season." 
Savage explains that not only are people browsing the videos, they're finding personalized support. "If a Mormon adult posts [a video], a Mormon teen sees it and comments there, it goes right to the person who made the video. That person can respond to the kid and comment. People are hooking up directly with people who were in their situation and finding support that way."  This tailored support will continue as Savage and his team prepare to turn what started as a simple Youtube clip, into its own entity: "We're launching a new website with videos, forums, instruction on how to make and upload videos. People will be able to sift and sort videos to find ones relevant for them." 

The project, for Savage, is not only building steam in terms of video hits and people connecting, but creating peace of mind for LBGTQ youth, particularly kids like Justin Aaberg in small towns, with absolutely nobody to turn to. Savage says the channel, at its roots, is for "A lot of gay kids who were really isolated and lost: a shoulder to cry on. It's not an easy or quick solution. All too often the gay kid at school goes from the bullying at school, home to mom and dad for more bullying, and then to church on Sunday with even more bullying. [Video participants] are nominating themselves for the shoulder to cry on and the confidant that these kids need.”  

As someone who was bullied and harassed in high school for being gay, I personally thought I should do my part in contributing a video to the “It Gets Better” project. In my own video, I relayed my experiences of daily abuse, which climaxed in me landing face down in a thorn bush behind my high school, nearly losing vision in one eye. High school for me was, like many gay teens, an extremely emotional and difficult time. But I managed to pull through, and like Savage and Miller, I want to encourage young gay teens that life after high school can be a lot better. 

In just two days, I had over 300 views, and supportive comments from family and friends poured in. The most satisfying comment I received was from a stranger, who said "I liked your video, and thank you for helping people like me out. Thank you so much. I still have problems even though I am in college, and when I watch the videos like yours, I realize that one day hopefully things will get better." Even that one reaction alone, for me, made recording the video worth my while. That a few minutes out of one day of my life impacted someone so immediately, and could continue to help motivate young people for years is truly heartwarming.  

Savage is already seeing results on his end. "The most moving email," he says, "I got was from an 18-year-old in a high school who saw a kid being picked on, and he emailed him the website. A little later, I got an email from a kid who said another kid who he didn't know sent him the address. I believe it was the same two boys. What's really gratifying are the moms and dads of bullied 13, 14 and 15-year-olds, sitting bullied kids down to watch the videos writing me and telling me it is helping." 

It is helping and it is a start, and even by watching these types of videos, young LGBTQ youth are hopefully on their way to a brighter tomorrow. It's the type of project I wish existed when I was growing up. I, like Savage, was lucky enough to find that out, unlike the group of teens who sadly took their own lives. Just as I'm about to hang up my phone, I hear Dan calling my name: 
"Yes?" I say into my receiver, unsure what he has to say to me. 
“I just want to say, I'm glad you survived. I'm glad you escaped the small town you grew up in.”

 //JJ Brewis
Art Director

Illustrations by Erin Rae

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