When popular sex columnist Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better Project” video project, which was designed to reach out to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth struggling with anti-gay bullying, he never thought it would become the viral sensation of 2010. Now, seven months after the video project’s inception, Savage has co-authored the “It Gets Better” book with his partner Terry Miller. The compilation of stories is inspired by the thousands of submissions they received from people all over the world in response to the video project.
I recently spoke to Savage about the popular videos and his book.
Dreux Dougall: You created the “It Gets Better Project” in September 2010 with your partner, Terry Miller. What prompted that decision and what did you initially hope to accomplish?
Dan Savage: What prompted the decision was the realization that in the YouTube era, as a gay adult, I no longer needed the permission of parents to talk to LGBT kids, or an invitation from a school. Billy Lucas was this kid in Greensburg, Ind., who killed himself. He was bullied for being gay. He wasn’t out, he may or may not have been gay — not all victims of anti-gay bullying or violence are gay.
But a commenter wrote something addressed to Billy Lucas in [a] blog post saying, “Rest in Peace, Billy Lucas, I wish I’d known you and been able to tell you that it gets better, that things get better.” And that stuck in my head, and I was traveling from college to college to speak and I thought, “I need to go to a high school, but I would never get permission to speak at a high school.”
It just occurred to me that I didn’t need permission. These kids need to know that it gets better before they commit suicide. And the kids that most desperately need to hear that from gay adults are the kind of kids who have homophobic parents who would never allow them to get that message, who would never allow an openly gay adult to talk to their gay kid.
So the idea was to create this project to encourage LGBT adults to talk to these kids, and to use YouTube and social media to let kids know about these messages and reach them before they harm themselves. Rather then feeling regretful after that we hadn’t been able too.
Dougall: You have now released a book as a complement to the web videos. Who do you hope to reach with this book that you weren’t reaching with the online project?
Savage: Not all kids are online. Not all kids have situations at home where they can risk creating an incriminating browser history. Forty percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT kids that were thrown out of the house after they came out. There are a lot of queer kids that are being terrorized in their homes. They can’t sit there and watch the videos with mom and dad in the next room.
Also, for schools to share the book. It’s one more way for schools to communicate to LGBT kids in those schools that they support them. So those kids who can’t watch the videos (many schools don’t allow access to YouTube, and some kids can’t watch the videos at home), those kids still have access to the book at school.
Dougall: The project has garnered widespread attention from people like President Barack Obama and John Berry (a high ranking, openly gay member of the Obama administration). How important is the participation of these public officials?
Savage: It’s immensely valuable. Those messages are very important, particularly those from the president, who is taking the side of these bullied kids. I’m old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan couldn’t bring himself to say “AIDS” for the first seven years of the HIV epidemic. So to go from that kind of president to this kind of president, who in three weeks went in to make a video and participate in this project, for me, is tremendously moving. Pop stars [participate], too. There are a lot of queer kids out there who look up to Ke$ha, so these messages [matter].
For us though, we didn’t launch the project as a celebrity or politician outreach program. It was about average, everyday LGBT folks who you’ve never heard of talking about their lives. We don’t want queer kids to get the impression that the only way to be safe and happy as a gay person — as a gay adult — is to get rich and famous, because not everybody gets rich and famous.
The videos that really matter are the videos from people that nobody has ever heard of. And the videos from the president, Ellen [DeGeneres], Adam Lambert, Jake Shears, Ke$ha, these videos are in the mix. There are 10,000 videos and the president is in there with drag queens, gay lawyers you’ve never heard of, gay doctors, lesbian poets and all these people who are part of the community. The president is in there with them, but the project isn’t about the president. We’re a community.
Dougall: On that note, who else would you like to see participate in this project?
Savage: We haven’t received a single video message from even one elected Republican official. For the videos, you don’t have to sign off on every last item on the LGBT political agenda — you don’t have to be for gay marriage. The president right now isn’t for gay marriage! You would think at least a John McCain or a Sarah Palin or a Rick Santorum or a Mike Huckabee would at the very least look at gay kids and say, “Hey, don’t kill yourself.”
And I think Sarah Palin is especially obligated, after her daughter participated in anti-gay bullying on Facebook. They can’t even bring themselves to do that, and that tells you something not just about these politicians but everybody who works in Washington, every Republican elected official.
They work every day with gay staffers. Capitol Hill has many openly gay staffers; Rick Santorum had an openly gay staffer for a very long time. I don’t think that they are all homophobes, but that their base is comprised of many homophobes and they’re afraid of offending their base. So they will not take a stand on this issue because their base prefers dead kids to gay kids.
Dougall: One of the things that I love about the book is the fact that there are messages in different languages — Arabic and Spanish, for example — as well as a couple of stories from people who are deaf. Tell me about the significance of these editorial decisions.
Savage: Well there are “It Gets Better Projects” being launched now in Israel and South Africa. The gay experience is kind of like an immigrant experience, and a refugee experience. We are spread evenly throughout the population and we come from all races, cultures, religious traditions and classes, and the book needed to represent that. We wanted to make sure that as many different kinds of LGBT kids could find stories like theirs in this book. The idea is not that there has to be a piece by somebody who speaks Arabic for Arabic-speaking kids to get it — that doesn’t hold. But we wanted to really represent the breadth and diversity of the LGBT community in the book.
Dougall: The LGBT community is still struggling for acceptance in many religious communities. How important was it to put messages from different religious leaders in your book?
Savage: It was very important. You talk about anti-gay bullying and what makes it distinct and unique, and why a project is needed like this for just gay kids and not all bullied kids. Gay kids are bullied at school by their peers all too often. They go home to more bullies at the hands of their families and their parents. Then they’re dragged to church on Sunday where they’re bullied by God. They’re told, “God hates fags, and they’re sinful and sick, and they’re going to hell” by their “faith leaders.”
So it’s really important for those kids to hear messages from bishops, the head of the Lutheran Church, from Stephen Sprinkle who’s a professor of religion at Brite Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister, telling them that it’s not true, telling them that it’s wrong and that God loves them.
I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in God. But I know that there are gay kids out there who do and are tormented by what they’ve been taught about God, and that relationship for them really needs to heal. There was also a terrific piece for the project by a group of gay Orthodox Jewish men. It was just so important that we have different voices in there because so much of the damage done to [the] LGBT [community] is done by religious people.
Dougall: What do you hope to achieve with this project? How do you define success?
Savage: The measure of success is lives saved. We know for a fact that the project has saved lives. The measure of success is in the 10,000 videos on the project. If we got 30 videos then we know we’ve saved a life and that would have been a success. We got as many as we did and as many people jumped in to demonstrate their support as they did, and we saved lives.
The other measure of success, which I think is the penultimate success of the project is, as I say in the intro of the book, the deal for gays and lesbians in the culture for the last 40 years has been, “You’re ours to torture until you turn 18. Once you’re 18 you can do what you want. You can move away, you can come out, you can try to build a life. There’s only one thing you can’t do, you can’t talk to the kids we’re still torturing in the same schools, churches, and homes where you were tortured, because if you try to talk to those kids we’ll accuse you of being a pedophile, we’ll say you’re trying to recruit kids into the gay lifestyle.”
And the “It Gets Better Project” really empowers the LGBT adults who used to shy away from talking to kids for fear of that charge being leveled against them. It really empowered LGBT adults to talk to LGBT kids without anyone’s permission, whether their parents wanted them to or not. So many of the videos are from people whose parents reacted very negatively at first, whose parents wouldn’t allow them to speak to LGBT adults in the beginning. But now they’ve come around and love and accept their gay children and ask for their forgiveness.
So for a lot of the teenagers in the “It Gets Better Project,” their parents may not want us to [talk to them] right now, but those parents will one day thank us. We’re helping to save their kids’ lives.
Dougall: Last question: What are three things we need to know about Dan Savage?
Savage: [Laughter] Well, I’m a European history geek. I’m a really good snow boarder — which most people wouldn’t assume a middle-aged, gay sex advice columnist is a good snowboarder. But I’m a really good one, and I really love it. And I like to bake! Those are my three geek-outs. I like snowboarding, and baking while reading up on European royals.
This interview has been condensed and edited.