Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why can’t it be better now?

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?


Sarah said...

There's a good piece in Rethinking Schools about how teachers can educate and support their students regarding GLBTQ issues in the classroom.

StepfordTO said...


I agree that schools tend to treat kids in an "instrumental," manner--i.e., as a means to some end, and this is true even when the end they're aiming for is laudable, for instance, producing caring, productive citizens (and let's face it, most times the ends are not so laudable). The heart of the problem is, as you say, that kids have no voice in the type of education they receive, nor a means to object to the poor treatment or inhumane practices that they are often subjected to. It is indeed sad that the best we can tell our kids is that they'll "get through it."

I also think it's sad--and disturbing--that in addition to the regular indignities of school, gay/lesbian/bisexual kids are frequently subjected to denigration and bullying by their peers. I think schools could do a lot more in the younger grades to fight homophobia. And parents could do a lot more too. A couple of years ago I published an article in a local newspaper about my daughters' emerging understanding of the word "gay." Although I didn't mention it specifically, the article was inspired by the murder of a teenager in California by a classmate. Given the recent spate of suicides by gay youth, I'm thinking of re-posting the article on my blog (minus the byline...though if people were to dig around a little, they might find a link to it already there).

Chris said...

Thanks, Sarah. Here's a clickable link to that article. (Alas, it appears that non-subscribers have to jump through some hoops to see the whole article.)

Chris said...

NorthTOmom -- I look forward to reading that article if you decide to post it.

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I've been thinking about this issue too. I feel a post coming on ... as usual, feel free to cross-post this at the CK-FS.

Chris said...

Thanks, FedUpMom. I'll cross-post it -- but I think I want to tinker with it first. That's a hazard of blogging for me -- publish first, edit later!

Chris said...

NorthTOmom's post is now up. Here's the link.