It Gets Better: Ten Years Later

Ten years ago the It Gets Better campaign launched and became a powerful voice of support and perspective for LGBTQ youth in a time of deep crisis. Across the country, young people were dying by suicide and being beaten, harassed, and intimidated during their adolescence—a critical time of self-discovery.

At the time, I ran a small community newspaper that I co-founded in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. In November 2020, we ran a package outlining the issue and listing resources for help. This was my editorial in that issue under the headline: “Will you make it better?”  I am republishing it today because the question is still so relevant.

I can see my blind spots and omissions in this piece—I’ve decided to leave them in for transparency. I’ve also added an addendum for a couple of the key points that could have been better connected here.

Some things have changed for the better in the past decade—the U.S. Supreme Court victory for marriage equality happened in 2015. In the summer of 2020, the USSC extended federal job protections to LGBT workers. And it is disheartening, if not surprising, to see how much there is yet to do, not just in LGBTQ issues, but also around care and equity for black lives.

I wrote this editorial as a personal letter. Change isn’t easy. We can keep looking for ways to help one another along the path of learning and growing so that we can create not only better relationships, but better systems that create equity and opportunity for all oppressed people.

By Anne O’Connor

For all the years that I’ve known you, you’ve been comfortable talking about “f*#s” and “queers” as if gay people were a scourge. I’ve listened to your fear, your loathing, your obvious need to set yourself apart from this group of people.

What you do is ordinary, predictable. Shunning people we don’t understand—scorning the way they live their lives—has a history as long as the human race. But that doesn’t make it right.

I’ve thought a lot about you as the headlines over the past months told one heartbreaking story after another. Stories about young people bullying kids who are gay—or who somehow “seem” gay. Reports about gay kids killing themselves. The horror that the families of these kids now live with. So I can’t help but wonder how you react to these stories. How do you feel about young people being so callous and cruel? What do you think about a teenager—mocked and ostracized by his peers—deciding that life isn’t worth living?

One story hit me particularly hard. An 11-year-old boy joined a cheerleading team. Two boys attacked him and broke his arm, calling him names like “queer.” But a boy of 11 is just a little boy. Must we tell our children that this is what life holds for them? That ridicule and injury—inflicting it or enduring it—are just part of growing up? How do we explain this dark part of our humanity?

I can well imagine this boy’s excitement and trepidation at joining the team. At 11, he likely already knew that some people would view his choice as an unusual one for a boy to make. Yet he went forward anyway, to do this thing that  he wanted to do. He thought maybe it would help him get a scholarship into college. More important, he was pursuing something that interested him. Cheerleading is a social endeavor that combines exercise and skill in support of a team. How do we justify breaking his arm because of it?

Please understand your role in this. You can’t simultaneously demean gay people, openly proclaim your hostility toward them, and then say—with any credibility—that it’s wrong to break their arms. After all, that’s the sort of thing human beings tend to do to those they despise: They hurt them. Make no mistake: Your hatred of people you’ve never even met is precisely the thing that moved four young hands to viciously break an arm. It takes an entire social system to validate the fear and ignorance that emboldened those two boys to beat up an innocent kid.

There was a time in this country when black people were routinely harassed and threatened and assaulted—simply for a natural and unchangeable trait. I’m not pretending that racial prejudice has disappeared. But it’s worth noting that attitudes and laws and hearts have a least changed to such a degree that those kinds of racial attacks are now unusual and alarming to nearly everyone.

This sort of change occurs only when a great many people begin to recognize that “being different” doesn’t mean being inferior.

If I could, I’d love to convince you that gay people aren’t a scourge or a danger. I’d be more than happy to share the mountain of research that says sexual orientation is no more a “choice” than skin color. And I’d love for you to see what I see: that humans come in many different forms and ways of being, that all of us have our own beauty and our own challenges. We are, simply, who we are.

If I could, I’d introduce you to some gay people and invite you to sit down to dinner together. After spending some time chatting and passing the bread basket back and forth, I’m willing to bet these “strangers” might not strike you as so strange. You might actually find reason to like some of them—just as you might like anyone else. Over the course of a simple meal, you might even come to a different understanding of how life works, of how many variations there are on the human theme. Maybe you’d get up from dessert and shake hands with these not-so-strange companions, and head home feeling better about yourself.

It can’t be easy carrying around all that anger and resentment and fear that you’ve been feeling toward gay people your whole life. It could be a relief to let it go.

It’s nice to think about. But I realize that most of this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. I know that attitudes tend to change slowly. So how about we start here: I won’t try to convince you that being gay is just another way of being human. I’ll just ask you to be kind.

You don’t have to like people to be kind. You don’t have to hang out with them, or approve of their “lifestyle.” But you do have to stop calling them names. You do have to stop wishing that an entire segment of the population didn’t exist. You do have to find a way to accept that people who aren’t like you are still people, deserving of respect.

If you can’t do this much, what will you do? Hold fast to your rigid idea of what is “right” until the end of time? Surely life asks more of you than that.

Every great teacher the world has known has taught the same lessons: Welcome the stranger. Judge not. Practice compassion.

Yet even as those words ring in our ears, too many of us find cause to repeat history—belittling and brutalizing the people we haven’t bothered to understand.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You have the power to change the world by doing something less ordinary, less predictable.

Give it a try: please. Be extraordinary. Be kind.

 

A 2020 update: As a request to an individual, this is a decent one. But a couple key points I wish I’d made then and will make now.

Most obviously in 2020 is the reality that black people are still routinely harassed, threatened, and assaulted and all-too-regularly killed. Worse—at the hands of cops with impunity. I appreciate that this reality has been brought into the light for those of us who weren’t as aware as we need to be to do our part in making the change. Keep your cell phone charged and ready—keep your voice strong and practiced in disrupting violence wherever you see it.  

The other thing that needs to be said about this editorial is that it doesn’t address the reality of gross inequity and discrimination inherent in our systems: Judicial, banking, schooling, food, housing, and more. If everyone were nice—that would be swell. But that’s not going to solve the problems because the problems are deeply embedded in how we interact with not only one another, but with the systems we live by.

In 2030, I hope that I have better news to report. Let's make it better.

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