In an October 15 column in The Tech, Andy Liang expressed his support for the “It Gets Better” campaign, started in response to the recent suicides by LGBT youth. On the face of it, the campaign seems impossible to criticize — what could be wrong with giving hope to desperate and lonely gay teenagers across America?
I’m sure that some of the videos are helpful and have allowed some people going through rough patches to better cope with bullying or getting ostracized by their peers. But for many of the people making these videos, especially Dan Savage (who started the campaign), it is a truly lazy and self-serving example of “activism.” These people who supposedly want to help teens struggling with suicidal urges are producing videos that amount to nothing more than public ego-stroking. In Savage’s video, he and his husband talk about how they were bullied and teased in high school but stayed strong and toughed it out and now lead fabulous, happy, affluent lives. They wax poetic about their perfect relationship and beautiful child. Yet the two are seemingly unaware of the realities that many gay teens dealing with depression face.
For someone on the brink of suicide, another person — who for all appearances has very few problems in their life — telling you that “everything will get better” comes off as a hollow, and possibly even cruel, assurance. It serves no other purpose than to make the depressed person feel even more isolated because it demonstrates to them that no one understands his or her suffering.
Telling them that they need to have hope will not help someone who — essentially by definition — has stopped being able to feel hope.
Telling them that their lives will get better, as if by magic, merely serves to remove responsibility from the speaker (and the LGBT community and society as a whole) to do work towards improving the attitudes of the oppressors and the treatment of the oppressed.
Telling them that they just need to suck it up for a while, which is what Savage’s video comes down to, only in less harsh-sounding words, is an incredibly facile way of ignoring the potential years of misery facing them.
All of this sounds terrible — believe me, I realize this. But every bit of criticism I’ve received for my opinion thus far has been from people with no experience of clinical depression or no experience of being gay. It seems to me that a lot of people like the idea of these videos more because it’s an easy way for them to feel better about themselves than out of an actual desire to help kids in trouble. Take a glance at the comments on the videos and you will see that the vast majority are from people who think it is “inspiring” or “touching” or “sweet.” A great deal start with the phrase “I’m not even gay, but...”
If you are one of these people, you are not helping. During arguments, I’ve had people tell me, “If we can’t say it gets better then what are we supposed to say? It gets worse?” On the contrary, there are ways of mixing rosy images of a brighter future with practical steps to get there.
If the goal of this campaign is to prevent gay teenagers from committing suicide, then the videos should focus less on the speaker in the video and more on the intended audience. It should be made clear to the viewer that however bad they feel, there is a way out, but you have to be willing to take steps toward that end. These feelings of misery will not evaporate by themselves.
The videos should also offer resources for kids in need. Some videos mention the Trevor Project, a depression and suicide hotline for queer and questioning youth. This is good, but every video should not only mention it, but press the issue.
The videos should be made by people who have been through it already. For all your good intentions, Anne Hathaway and Joe Jonas, you are not the ideal spokespeople.
Perhaps most importantly, the videos should stress the urgent need to seek help. If you are depressed, you cannot get better alone. Unfortunately, due to the stigma attached to depression, it can be as hard to come out as depressed as it is to come out as gay. (Side note: If you have reason to believe it would be detrimental to your well-being to come out as gay, do not come out until your situation changes.) I recommend coming to terms with it yourself, then starting to talk about it with anything you fancy — a poster on your wall or your pet dog — until you are ready to tell someone. You absolutely must tell someone. You’d be surprised how many people care about you, it’s just that they are usually too busy being concerned with things that don’t really matter to notice something has gone awry with you.
The general message of love in the majority of these videos is spot on, but too few people have up-close and personal experience with depression and suicide to offer productive advice. In response to criticism, Dan Savage defended himself by saying that he’s “not preventing others from doing more.” That’s all well and good, Mr. Savage, but don’t try pass this garbage off as some stunning and praiseworthy act of compassion.
Michael Veldman is a member of the Class of 2014.