Columnist Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video campaign has been in the news these past couple of days. The campaign was created in response to a recent rash of suicides by young LGBTQ kids. The videos are by queer adults, letting their younger counterparts know that it does get better, that you can get through the hatred and fear and homophobia of your upbringing and make a wonderful life for yourself.
This has a real resonance for me. I’m not gay, but I still got gay-bashed in school a lot, because I wasn’t particularly macho and I spoke well and dressed…er, eclectically…and I was friends with a few gay kids and people who later came out. I had a few friends who got it worse than I did, and one of my acquaintances, Matthew Shepherd, got it about as bad as you can get it. My uncle Kevin was also gay; he contracted HIV in 1982, got full-blown AIDS in 1984 and survived until 2002, when he died of a brain tumor he’d been diagnosed with at the same time he’d been diagnosed with AIDS; the doctors didn’t remove it because at the time it was benign, and because in 1984 AIDS was a death sentence that was always quickly carried out. All of Kevin’s lovers and, later, his husbands, were treated like members of our family; his first husband Michael died in my great-grandfather’s arms. So I grew up with gay family members and friends.
But I think this message is vital not just for members of the LGBTQ community, but for every kid, especially the kids whose wonderful minds and personalities mark them as being different from the herd. Goth kids, emo kids, nerds, geeks, freaks, art fags, dorks, hippie kids…every school has at least a few of them. Like me.
I hated every minute of my schooling, from kindergarten onward. I hated the other kids, I hated the teachers, I hated the school administration. I fought every single day not to go to school. And why not? For eleven years I was sent to a place where I was subjected to emotional and often physical cruelty from my peers and indifference and often outright hostility from my educators.
Why? Because I wasn’t like my peers. I was smarter than almost all of them; sorry, but that’s just the flat truth. I was curious and easily bored and I didn’t know how to keep my head down. I was sarcastic and I was insolent, because I hated being where I was and hated the people around me and had absolutely no choice in being where I was. I liked to read, not sit around talking about fucking WWF wrestling. I liked writing music and making art on my computer. I was autodidactic; I educated myself, for the most part, because I ignored my teachers and my schoolwork. I got almost straight Fs from sixth grade onward, except usually in my English classes. When I sat down in my first class, all I could think of was making it to lunchtime without getting humiliated or assaulted; after lunch, I just waited to be sent home.
What I learned in school wasn’t reading, writing and arithmetic; I learned hatred and fear, and I learned that my nominal job in society was to do what I was told. I didn’t learn that lesson then, and at the age of thirty-two, I haven’t learned it now. I do not do what I am told.
I know I’m not alone. Maybe you were one of those kids, who sat in those uncomfortable little desk-chairs and ignored the whispers of “Hey, faggot. Hey, faggot. Hey, cocksucker,” and the spitwads and the slaps in the back of the head when the teacher wasn’t looking; one of the kids who plotted their walk home to avoid where the bullies hung out; one of those kids who sat in their bedroom and thought about putting a gun in your mouth or a noose around your neck because the years until graduation seemed to stretch out like a life sentence with absolutely no hope of parole.
Maybe you’re one of those kids now. Maybe you’re queer, maybe you’re not; maybe you’re just different, the way I was different, the way my friends were different. Maybe you’re scared and hurting and just sick to fucking death of being treated like shit because you don’t wear the same clothes or like the same music or watch the same TV. Maybe you’re having as hard a time as I did seeing the exit door.
If so, I’d like to tell you something. It’s a secret your teachers won’t tell you, your parents probably won’t tell you, it’s something you may secretly believe but deny to yourself in the face of all of the people who are telling you otherwise. The secret is this.
You’re smarter than they are. Really. Trust me. The great thing about Facebook is that I can look and see what the assholes who tormented me are up to. Most of them are sad, pathetic, boring adults. They have tiny lives. Most of them seem to have gotten their skanky girlfriends knocked up at an early age, and have a giant brood of nasty little piglet children. They still like shitty music. They got puffy around the face, the kind of puffy you get when you spend your life getting shit-faced on cheap beer with the rest of the retards because you can’t face the blank wall that is your future. Most of them never left home, or got more than a couple of hundred miles away. A lot of them love Jesus to a really scary degree. Hey, I don’t blame them. If I’d fucked this life up, I’d probably spend all my time dreaming of the next one too.
You’re right about your teachers, too. Most of them just don’t give a shit about you. They’re drawing a paycheck. There are a few who really care — and you’ll remember them, for the rest of your life. A few months ago I called up my wonderful guidance counselor, Clarice Boring, and told her about my impending marriage and my life, and thanked her for being one of those lights during a dark and scary time. You might have an English teacher or an art teacher — or in my fiancee’s case, drama teachers — who are like that. Man, treasure them. They’re good people and sometimes they’re more like family than your family is.
But the rest of them? Fuck them and fuck what they think of you. Don’t assume because they’re in charge that they know better than you how to live your life. They’re just as confused as you are. One of the great secrets of adulthood is that you don’t figure everything out. You just figure out how to make it look like you have.
That goes for your parents, too. Here’s another secret: your parents are just people too. They don’t have all the answers. And no, they probably don’t understand you now. When people have children, they secretly believe that their kids are going to be exactly like them, except that they won’t make the same mistakes. When it turns out that this new person you’ve created is just that, a person, with their own minds and souls and ways of thinking and wants and needs, that might be completely 180º from what you want — a lot of people can’t deal with that.
That sucks, but you know what? That’s not your fault, either. They need to learn to accept who you are and to accept the choices you make. Maybe it’ll take them a while — not everybody’s a quick study — but most of the time, they do figure it out eventually.
And if they don’t, then fuck them. Most cool people I know make their own families out of friends and lovers. If your parents can’t accept you, you just have to understand that and build a family out of the people who do. You’ll find them.
I wish I could tell you there was another way to get through all of this, but there’s not. You’re stuck with this bullshit, kid, right up until the day you get that diploma and bounce the fuck on out of wherever it is the universe started you off — the burbs or the hood or some sad little cowshit town out in the middle of Flyover Country. But from there, you can go anywhere. Anywhere. Sometimes you get to do it in style; you’ve got the grades to go to a kick-ass college and study whatever you want, or parents who can pay to see your dreams realized. If you’ve got that chance, take it.
If that’s not the case — if you’re not bound for Harvard or MIT or UCLA — you can still get out. Nobody’s got a chain around your ankle. Sometimes salvation looks like a Greyhound bus, headed to New York or San Francisco or Portland or Denver. That’s not easy, but it can be done. Plenty of people do it and do well.
I won’t bullshit you: it’s rough out here in the big world. It is. The stakes are higher. You can die out here, get killed, disappear, lose yourself to a bottle or a needle or a pipe. And people like us, who make our own way in the world, often find ourselves in places we’d rather not be, because we’re not following the easy, well-defined path.
But you can make it. And Dan Savage is right: it gets better. It does. I swear to you, kid, it gets better. You make friends. You fall in love. You become master of your own destiny, wherever the world takes you and wherever you decide to go.
And one day, you’ll find yourself over thirty, looking at the life you’ve made — a life you probably couldn’t have even imagined back in the day, back in school — and all the horror and hate and terror will seem like a bad dream that somebody else had. You won’t be that scared person anymore.
And that’s when you’ve won.
My heart breaks for you, kid, and what you’re going through. You may not believe that, but it’s true. It breaks for you and every other kid like you, like me, like us. It breaks for every kid who takes a beatdown because of how they dress or how they think or who they love. As a wise man once wrote, “What I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that though I do not know you and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you, I love you. With all my heart, I love you.”
All I can do is repeat myself: it gets better. It gets better. It gets better. You will be beautiful and you will be amazing. You will be loved, you will be admired, you will have people to share your dreams and your life with. You will win.
And fuck anybody who tells you otherwise.
Get to it.