Thursday, October 7, 2010

Guest post: Why can’t it be better now?

(From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool)

After news of yet another suicide by a gay teenager who had been tormented at school, Dan Savage has started a YouTube channel called “It Gets Better,” in which gay and lesbian adults talk about how life really does get better after high school. From the New York Times:

Q: Why did you decide to create a YouTube channel to talk to gay teenagers?

A: There was another suicide of a teenager, a kid who was being harassed for being gay. I put up a link to the story, and someone said in a comment that they wished they could have talked to the kid for five minutes to tell him it gets better. That’s always been my reaction too. I realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids. We can make an end run around the schools that don’t protect them, from parents who want to keep gay kids isolated and churches that tell them that they are sinful or disordered. . . .

Q: The video advice you offer kids is to just hang in there. Why aren’t you telling them that you can help them now?

A: We can’t help them. That’s what makes gay adults despair and feel so helpless when we hear these stories. We can’t barge into these schools. I get to go to colleges and speak, but high schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. I’ve read these stories for years. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.

The channel is now filled with videos telling kids to have faith: high school will end, and things will get better. (Savage’s own video is here.)

The project is admirable and moving, but there is also a layer of sadness over it. The best that it can promise these kids is that if they can just survive for four more years, their pain will subside and they’ll find some happiness. Until then, though, there is no prospect of relief.

Intolerance and cruelty are almost universally seen as immutable features of childhood -- something to be endured, but not avoided. Is it true? How is it that, as almost everyone acknowledges, this cruelty largely dissipates the minute the kids set foot on a college campus? Is it because an extra year has utterly transformed their characters? Or is it because they suddenly find themselves in a very different kind of institution?

The cruelty of kids is a form of dehumanization: the victim is treated as an object to be used, rather than as a full-fledged human being. You don’t have to look far, in K-12 schooling, for models of that kind of behavior. Much of the national debate about education is framed in exactly those terms: kids are a means to the goal of improving the gross national product and boosting our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Our job is not to engage them as partners in their own development, but to manipulate, trick, coerce, and punish them into doing what we think is best for us -- er, I mean, for them. We give them little or no say in how they are treated, and discourage them from thinking critically about the institution they are confined to. We give them no outlet for their grievances against those institutions. We reduce their civil liberties to a minimum. We insist that they be quiet and obedient. In short, we push them around a lot -- though we tell ourselves it’s for their own good -- and we can do it because they're powerless to stop us.

Is that the recipe for getting kids to treat each other with respect and dignity?


  1. Chris, thanks for the post. I've been thinking about this issue too.

    One recent tragedy was at a college, so there's no guarantee that problems will end after high school.

    I agree that we need to look harder at the school environment.

  2. Chris and FedUpMom,

    I'm thinking and writing about the same issue over on my blog. Interestingly, here in Ontario, there was a new sex ed curriculum, slated to be implemented this September, which was scrapped because some Christian right groups objected to the fact that homosexuality was mentioned in grade 3. I think it's unfortunate that the government caved in to pressure (from what was in fact a very small minority), because I believe the schools are not doing enough--early enough--to make a difference for gay kids in the system later on. I also think parents could do a lot more to raise awareness and promote tolerance around these issues. (That's what my post is about.)

  3. Last night Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show "The Last Word," ran a video of Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns' heartfelt address of current suicides and plight of bullied children. Can be viewed here.
    The Last Word Blog

  4. That video is amazing and well worth watching through to the end. As a parent, I found the first few minutes almost too hard to bear; it is impossible to watch them without concluding that something is very, very wrong in our schools.

  5. P.S. But don't show it to the kids -- they might find out that gay people exist!

  6. Chris, you made a funny!

    Yep, I've started writing a comment a couple of times on this - then backed off ... and well, here goes another try.

    I believe the best we can do for our kids is model honesty about our own bodies and sexuality. It can be tricky to have privacy, show respect for another's privacy even referring to our genitals as "private parts" yet not let the message be taken as "shame." I suppose it's better to risk too much information than too little.