In hindsight, I knew when I was around ten or eleven that I was queer: that I had and was experiencing growing sexual and romantic feelings for people of all genders, not just those of one of for those of a different sex or gender than me, feelings I'd continue to have throughout my teen years and my adult life to date. I didn't have the language for it then, though, even though there were queer adults in my orbit I could have gotten it from, adults I naturally gravitated towards without realizing a big part of why was because I saw myself in them and I really needed them. Looking back, others identified my orientation before I did: a homophobic grandparent, an uncomfortable parent as well as a comfortable and readily accepting parent, and, most important to this particular tale, a group of teenage meanies in the blessedly brief time I spent in a suburban public high school in the 80's who sometimes whispered but other times yelled, "Dyke!" or "Lesbo!" as they passed me in the halls.
In that high school, I had a tiny but great handful of friends, all of us outcasts in one way or more: because we were queer, because we were punk, because we had less money, because we were just different and either showed it outright or couldn't pass as "normal." When any of us got harassed, we often had each other to blow off steam with, to find solidarity with, but we couldn't always be there for each other, and even when we could, that didn't make the harassment and bullying any less scary nor did it sting any less.
I remember a particular bunch of girls, junior cheerleaders, especially their nasty ringleader. Jill was the one who instigated most of the harassment, who'd walk by me the most often and bark homophobic slurs, who spread the most gossip about me, even though I'd never done anything to her, or even had any interaction with her at all outside her bullying that I could recall. Heck, I never even talked back when she harassed me: usually I simply scurried into the bathroom or a classroom, flew out unto the smoking lot trying to puff out my upset, or just pretended I didn't hear her and kept on walking. When my boyfriend violently and unexpectedly committed suicide, it was probably Jill who started a very deeply painful and fast-spreading rumor that I'd shot him myself because I was really a deranged, man-hating lesbian.
I'd made myself go to school the day after he died because I was worried I wouldn't be safe for myself home alone. As awful an environment as that school had been for me, I didn't anticipate that even after something so terrible had happened to me, I couldn't count on it to be safe for just one day, or that such a terrible tragedy would be seen by anyone as an opportunity to bully me more about my orientation, of all things. The suggestion that I'd done something so terrible to someone I loved so much, and was reeling so much over the loss of, to the point of being catatonic was beyond outrage; even knowing full well it wasn't true, even knowing the likely source knew nothing about me, it made something already so traumatic so, so much more painful. Maybe to Jill and those like her, any of this seemed harmless or minor or even funny, but it wasn't any of those things for me.
Luckily, I was able to get out of that school shortly thereafter. I switched to a small performing arts school in Chicago, where there were just as many queer kids as straight kids, where queer teachers were out, where I was in a safe community where sexual orientation and all kinds of other perceived weirdness was pretty much a total non-issue. A place where everyone was generally wonderful to each other, perhaps because so many of us had been treated so badly by others in other places before. That school, for so many of us, was our safe haven, and it was very much mine.
Around a year later, I was out with a bunch of friends, including a girl I really liked, at an all-ages club on the north side of Chicago. It wasn't a queer club specifically, but it was a place more meant for misfits of every variety than for girls like Jill; a place where it was also safe to be queer and out. I felt able to be who I was there, including being the girl who really liked this other girl and wanted to keep my lips attached to her face as much as was humanly possible.
So, when I was inside the club making out with my I-so-hope-she-becomes-my-girlfriend and I heard someone behind us squeal, "Oh my GAWD, it's that fucking dyke! I knew it! DYKE!" I was pretty surprised. When I turned around to see that it was Jill and her mall-haired gaggle of flying monkeys, I was even more surprised.
But perhaps the most surprising thing of all was that what she said didn't hurt, not even a little. It wasn't scary. It didn't make me feel small.
It was pathetic, really. It felt like merely a statement of fact, said in such a way that made her look like an idiot, and in a place where the only person who got outed was her: as a bully and a jerk. She was trying to announce to the world I was queer, which seemed a mighty silly thing to do when no one could announce it more than I already had with my lips and hands all over another girl in a public place. Not only did I not care if everyone in the club knew, I knew that what she'd telegraphed most was not how I didn't belong, but how she didn't; not how I wasn't okay, but how she wasn't; not how outnumbered I was, but how outnumbered she was. I wasn't in her space anymore: she was in mine. She hadn't made me unsafe or unwelcome: the only person she made unsafe and unwelcome in that moment and place was herself, made so by herself. I didn't feel embarrassed myself; even despite strongly disliking her, for a nanosecond, I actually felt embarrassed for her.
I grinned. My girlfriend and our friends grinned and then we just laughed. I gave Jill a thumbs up, and then the girl I was with decided she'd had enough of the unwanted interruption and pulled me right back to what we were previously doing, with Jill's continued whine of dykey-dyke-dyke waning like a car running out of gas and feeling more like a cheer for my home team than a jeer. Getting very well kissed while someone (someone who is NOT being kissed, thankyouverymuch) weakly calls you a dyke, The Smiths blaring in the background so you're thinking that in that moment, maybe even Morrissey is happy for once? It really takes the edge off.
It took a while for things to get better for me in a bigger way, but that was the first moment where I remember strongly and firmly feeling that it was going to get better, that it already had, and that it would keep getting better; that people like Jill were going to have less and less impact on and power over me and everyone else as time went on. You know, just writing about all of that brought sharply back how much it hurt: it's gotten better enough for me since then that without dredging it all up again, I earnestly forgot just how very painful it was. It getting better can not only make your present life a lot better, it can also make the times it wasn't better hurt a lot less and have a lot less impact. It gets harder to remember the bad stuff when the better stuff has been so great. And once it has gotten better, even when the jeers or the harassment or the bizarre accusations still happen, it gets a lot easier to brush off and a lot harder to let it get you down.
Admittedly, when it came to my orientation (as opposed to other areas of my life and person), I didn't have it as bad as some other kids I knew, certainly not as bad as most queer people in the many generations before me, and not as bad as plenty of young people today still have it. Not everyone has queer friends or friends at all, not everyone lives in or very near an urban area, not everyone is afforded an opportunity to find a school like I did, not everyone has at least one supportive parent, not everyone even knows one other queer person, and not everyone has even one place they can make out with -- or even hang out with -- someone of the same-sex or a similar-gender and feel or earnestly be safe.
It turns out that Dan Savage and I grew up in and around the same neighborhoods (and now live in the same far-flung state, how weird is that?). Dan, like I did, found that it got a lot better, and Dan, syndicated sex columnist and the editorial director of The Stranger, just started a new project, It Gets Better, to help support young people in knowing that it can get better, and for so many of us, has gotten better, something it can be so hard to know or believe sometimes. Like Dan, I really feel confident saying that for however bad it is now, the chances are extraordinarily good that it will get better.
Billy Lucas was just 15 when he hanged himself in a barn on his grandmother's property. He reportedly endured intense bullying at the hands of his classmates—classmates who called him a fag and told him to kill himself. His mother found his body....
I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.
But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.
Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.
If you haven't taken a look at the videos in the project, you really should, whatever your age or orientation. They're powerful, positive and full of love, hope and all the other good stuff everyone needs. If you are queer and young, know that a lot of those powerful-sounding, happy people looked and felt a whole lot like you do once, and as much as it hurt like hell to get through it, they did it, and they want to do what they can to help you get through it, too. Dan took the time to answer some of my questions about the project this morning, and here's what he had to say:
Heather: In your own life, before it really did start to get better, did you have any cues or glimpses that it might get better you didn't recognize at the time?
Dan: It turns out there were gay people in family's orbit—priests, mostly, and a couple of waiters (my mom and dad ran a restaurant for a while)—but they weren't open about it front of us, "the children," because... well, you had to be discreet, right? Because then they would've been shoving it down our throats, etc., etc. And my parents believed, at the time, that they could protect us from becoming gay—me, the momma's boy, in particular—by keeping information about gay people, and gay role models, away from us. They were, as it turns out, pretty spectacularly wrong, huh?
The first clues I got that it wouldn't be so bad came when I was old enough to explore the city on my own. I grew up in Chicago and by the time I was 15, in 1979, I was riding my bike through the gay neighborhood, and I could see gay men and women. But this, of course, was back when gay neighborhoods were still pretty marginal, and most people who were gay were still closeted. So I wasn't seeing a representative sample of gay men and lesbians. I was seeing guys with huge mustaches on their way to the baths. And that wasn't what I wanted for myself. I remember thinking, "But this is all I can have," and being depressed.
Heather: I know I deeply benefitted by changing my community and my school, something I was lucky enough to be able to do. But I also was able to recognize that the problem WAS my community and my school, and not me or my orientation, something not everyone can recognize, especially without family or other supportive people around who are accepting of every orientation and sexual identity. For those who have really internalized every negative message around them, for whom positive messages don't seem real or are hard to hear, what can you offer?
Dan: Look around, look at the people who disprove the lies that you've internalized. Either they're crazy — all those openly gay, happy, successful people out there — or the people who told you being gay is a sin are crazy.
You know, I've always said that what saved was a little voice inside myself that kept saying, "You're fine, Dan, everybody else is fucked in their fucking heads." I don't know where that voice came from. Maybe my mom, maybe my dad, maybe even my Catholic education. I kept saying to myself, "Being gay hurts no one, so it can't be wrong. I don't want to kiss boys who don't want me to kiss them, so where is the harm in this? How can it be evil?"
Heather: Of the videos done for the project so far, which are your favorites?
Dan: Oh, my god. The one with the two guys who realize they're making a video for 15 year old boys and they need to think about what interests them. And suddenly there are really hot gay boys in the room dancing around in their underwear. The one made in SF with crowds of people chanting "IT GETS BETTER!" The one with a gay couple with a daughter named DJ. My son is named DJ. The rural lesbian farmer. The gay Muslim teenager. And on and on.
Heather: You're a writer, so video isn't usually the way you do your thing. Is there a reason you picked video as the medium for this project?
Dan: Yes, because I wanted to show them our lives. And kids use YouTube and understand social media. I wanted adults to talk to them about their lives, to share pictures, to look into their eyes and say, "It gets better."
Heather: I do agree that it usually does get better over time, often a lot better. But in the meantime, what do you suggest for young people trying to cope with the fact that it's not better yet, or where it feels like it's going to take an awfully long time for things to get better, or like they never might?
Dan: You know, if you're in an impossible situation—violently homophobic parents, small town, anti-gay peers — don't kick down the closet door and wind up on the streets. Wait it out. Find the stuff you enjoy, for me it was reading and theater, and pursue that, your interests, while your straight peers are pursuing each other. Instead of bemoaning what your life is like at 15, start laying the groundwork for the life you could have just a few years later at 18.
Leave the house, get involved with something, anything, that you find rewarding. It might be working in a foodbank. A lot of gay kids excel at non-team sports: biking, tennis, swimming. Whatever it is, go and do that. You'll be healthier for it and you just might meet some other gay kids.
Heather: How can young people act in their own interest to MAKE it better, both queer young people, but also young, straight allies? What about older LGBTQ people for whom it is now better: how can all of us best help young people for whom it's not better yet?
Dan: If you're going to a public school, form a GSA. If you're discriminated against, reach out to the ACLU for help. They do amazing work with and on behalf of LGBT teenagers. You have rights. Look around your school for straight allies and friends. If there isn't a community for you at your school, try to make one. If your school environment is so hostile that you can't make one, go find one outside of school.
And if you're being bullied at school and at home and at church, and in despair, reach out to the Trevor Project for help and support. And remember: it ends. School ends. It gets better.
You can also reach out to the people who are posting videos at the It Gets Better Project. If you post a comment to a video, it goes right to the person who posted it. That's one of the really amazing things about IGBP. Mormon teenagers can reach out to the gay Mormon adults whose videos they've watched online, gay Muslim teenagers can reach out to the Muslim gay adults, young trans kids can reach out to the trans adults, and on and on. It's linking people up, giving them help in addition to hope.
Heather: What can we tell schools, specifically, about making it better now? So many schools still are not safe spaces and still outright refuse to be safe spaces, not just peers, but administrations, too.
Dan: Make it better or we're going to sue your asses and it's going to cost you money. Really, that's what it's going to take.
Heather: Which is something young people can do: again, for students in the United States, that's the right time to contact your local ACLU branch and they will help. For students internationally, Amnesty International is a good place to start.
How do you feel about the fact that one way for queer young people to protect themselves is simply not to come out? Do you think the downsides of staying in the closet are worth the protection it can offer?
Dan: I think it's really irresponsible to tell all queer kids to come out without first advising them to take a long, hard, cold look at their particular circumstances. If a 14 year comes out because he's been told that he must, or should, or that's how it gets better, and is thrown out of the house, what then?
Some kids are just not in situations where they can come out. Most of the kids who are being bullied to death were the ones who couldn't hide. I'm sure there are other gay kids in those schools, gay kids who can pass for straight. Would we advise them to come out?
Heather: Working with young people internationally, I have to know that there are many for whom it won't actually get better unless they emigrate elsewhere or completely divorce themselves from their families and cultures, something that's a lot easier for people of privilege to do than for those without. I don't know about you, but I always struggle to know how to best support young people in whole countries or cultures in which the treatment they get in high school really is indicative of -- if not more benign than -- the treatment they'll get after high school. Obviously, just saying, "You need to move far, far away," is only so helpful. Any ideas? (Besides an underground railroad, which I think about every day, but can't visualize how we'd do it yet. Unless you have ideas about how to make that happen.)
Dan: We've seen some gay and lesbian people from repressive societies successfully claim asylum in countries that recognize the humanity, if not the full civil equality, of LGBT persons. My heart aches for LGBT kids condemned to grow up in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately the best advice — even though it's not always realistic — is to get out. Flee to a country like the UK or the US or Canada, come out, and file for asylum.
Check out the project. Make your own video if you can, or make your very own project to be supportive: this doesn't just have to come from adults, after all, and hopefully we don't have to tell you about the power a peer talking to another peer can have, something often even more powerful than what older adults can offer.
If you've been at Scarleteen before, you've already identified one safe space for you online. If you're new to Scarleteen, welcome in! Know that this is a safe space for you and we'll always be committed to keeping it that way. Most of our staff and volunteers are queer ourselves, and our straight staff and volunteers are fantastic, supportive allies, as are many young adult users and members of our community. We're not only committed to helping things get better for you and helping you make them better as much as you can, but to listening to you, holding your stories, and giving you whatever support you want that we can give while it's still not better at all. But this isn't the only safe space, nor the only resource available to queer youth. Want some more?
Online, you can check out:
There are some great hotlines that you can use when you need to talk to someone:
- The Trevor Project: (866) 488-7386
- The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline: (888) 843-4564
- The GLBT National Youth Talkline: (800) 246-7743
- Scarleteen's Free Text Line: text keyword ASKST to #66746
Want some books to help you through it? See if you can't find a copy of:
- GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens by Kelly Huegel
- Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence by Marion Dane Bauer
- Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies by Ellen Bass
- Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein
- Out Law: What LGBT Youth Should Know about Their Legal Rights by Lisa Keen
- and, of course, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College