no single story is everyone's story: thoughts on the "it gets better" project

There's been buzz around the feminist/queer interwebs about the It Gets Better crowd-sourced YouTube project, in which non-straight, gender-non-conforming folks are asked to film and post their stories about coming of age and leaving shitty adolescent experiences behind for better places.  This project was started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry in response to the recent high-profile suicides by teenagers who were bullied for being, or being seen as, queer.

There have been a number of, I think, valid critiques of the project: its limitations (is "it gets better" all we can offer kids in pain??), the implicit assumptions it makes (that things will get better, that adolescence universally sucks and adulthood is inherently superior).  One of the best breakdowns I've seen comes from TempsContreTemps @ (femmephane). Quoting at length, from the ten reasons the project (and specifically Dan and Terry's contribution) makes her feel uncomfortable
1. The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment. By aligning their bullying with the religiosity and “small-town mentality,” Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious and the rural are more bigoted.

2. The message is wrong. Sometimes it gets better– but a lot of times it doesn’t get any better. Emphasizing that things will improve upon graduation is misleading both to young folks struggling and also to people with privilege who are looking on (or looking away).

3. Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing–to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing– is a violent reassignment of guilt. Dan Savage telling kids that if they don’t survive their teenage years they’re depriving themselves? What kind of ageist garbage is that? This quietly but forcefully suggests that if you don’t survive, if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. It blames the queer for not being strong enough to get to the rosy, privileged, fantasy.

4. Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth. Arguing that in the future, the parts that hurt will be fixed, not only suggests that folks shouldn’t actually inhabit their own suffering but it also suggests that the future is more important. For a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter if your mother might come to love you and your spouse. It matters that right now she does not love you at all.

5. The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out– even when coming out isn’t a safe idea. There is no infrastructure to catch you when your family reacts poorly. There is no truly benevolent queer family, waiting to catch you, ready to sacrifice so you can thrive. For a lot of folks, coming out doesn’t only mean that your parents will promise to hate your lovers– it means violence, homelessness, abuse.

6. Bar story: vomit. It’s no coincidence that this is the first place where Dan and Terry mention queer space. Codified queer-space, restricted to 21+, w alcohol? Try again.

7. We shouldn’t be talking, we should be listening. Telling our own stories from our incredibly privileged positions, overwrites youth experience.

8. Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you. Narratives of how life was hard and but now is good, belittle lived pain, imply that a good ending is inevitable, and also undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids’ lives.

9. There is actually no path to change in this vision. Promoting the illusion that things just “get better,” enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world. Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how.

10. Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF? This is a video for rich kids for whom the only violent part of their life is high school. It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others. Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them– it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.

Plus three (with a little help from my friends)

1. When we treat campaigns like this like they’re revolutionary, they undermine all the really amazing work that the youth already does for itself. Too often in the LGBT world, we are asked to thank our brave queer activist ancestors who made the world safe for us. That does have its place. But queer youth take care of themselves. They nurture and organize and love in order to save themselves and each other. Making famous messages legible as THE messages makes youth-work look minor, haphazard, or unofficial.

2. Campaigns like this lump everyone together. It doesn’t honor or respect the individuals. It turns them into icons. It sends confusing messages that we only attend to folks when their dead– when giving care doesn’t actually take anything out of us.

3. Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting. We should help folks feel seen— by trying our hardest to see them.

It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like,  is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.
You can read the whole thing over at (femmephane).

You can also read the follow-up post there.

And thanks to taniada @ Cynical Idealism for sharing the link on Tumblr and thus bringing it to my attention.

I haven't been at a computer where I have multimedia access long enough in recent weeks (I can't watch videos at work; I try to limit my recreational internet time at home) so I haven't actually watched Dan and Terry's video.  So this post isn't really about the project or the specific video. Instead, it's about the responses to the video; in particular, the frustration expressed by many that this project -- particularly since it has Dan Savage's name on it -- has been getting so much attention, and the implications of that attention for folks whose stories don't fit the narrative of "it gets better."  As TempsContreTemps writes in her follow-up post:
I wrote my piece as a response to the way that Dan and Terry’s video went viral so quickly. I was thinking about 1) why it was that THAT video was so popular and liked and 2) why the video made me and many of my friends uncomfortable. Also, I wanted to know whether those questions were related. Did it seem so painful because it was so popular? I am not capable of, nor would I want to, destroy Dan and Terry’s message. There are a multitude of ways to be queer. Dan’s isn’t the only voice… and neither is mine.

Instead, I want to complicate the dialogue.
This post illustrates for me the point that so easily gets lost in discussions about whether X or Y representation of movement Z or community Q is accurate or not, privileged or not, silencing or not, worthwhile or not, illuminating, incisive, judgmental, blind, feminist, misogynist, transphobic, racist, ageist, ableist ... or not. The point that any one piece of activism can be multiple things at once.  Just as any feminist critic of popular culture knows that a song or a movie or a phenomenon can embody contradictory messages about women, so too can a single piece of activism embody contradictory messages, and cause contradictory effects.

We can (and I think should) get angry at these bits and pieces of activism for not living up to our expectations that people working for social justice be aware of, and attempt to mitigate, their personal biases and blind spots.  In scholarly research, we are (ideally!) trained to situate ourselves self-consciously in relation to our research, and be as honest as possible about the context out of which we analyze our sources, the context out of which we construct our narratives, the context out of which we formulate plans of action. There is no universal context (except for the context of being an oxygen-breathing human being, and even there you might be able to convince me otherwise ...) and context mattersPeople who don't exhibit some sort of awareness of their own context in relation to others' are bumbling at best and willfully ignorant at worst.  And they do deserve to be called on that behavior.

However, too often the echochamber of the internets, or of your given subculture of choice, seems to amplify these critiques to the point at which any meaningful, life-enhancing contribution of the originating act (in this case, the It Gets Better campaign) is denied. The act becomes shameful and the people involved are shamed, all nuance is erased and in the end -- in my opinion -- the potential for rich, collaborative, transformational work is often lost. All parties involved are often partially responsible for this dynamic -- in my experience, it is rarely wholly caused by the critic(s) or the original actor(s) but some combination of failing to listen and failing to respect that human beings are complicated, and often contradictory, and that all of those contradictions deserve a place at the table, in all their messy glory. 'Cause that's what life is all about.

So I'm really thankful that TempsContraTemps raised questions about the project in this particular way, and I'm hoping the project (or counter-projects, or spin-off projects, or parallels or out-growths or alternates or reappropriations) benefits from that critique.

Maybe, when I finally have a chance to go watch some of the videos, the representative voices will be as gloriously myriad as I know the queer community to be. And hopefully, each one of those stories will speak to someone else's heart and let them know they are not quite so alone.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I read this! I feel like the project has value and worth and on one hand I'm glad it exists but it's always felt to me almost akin to those PSAs that tell women that in order to prevent violence they need to learn to defend themselves and not wear certain things and not act a certain way. Who needs to stop bullying? The bullies. Telling kids who have been bullied and abused by their peers just to tough it out and deal until some mythical point in the future that may or may not appear seems, to me, to be taking the blame away from where it aught to be: on the heads of those who do the actual bullying.