CACTUSPEAR.ORG PRESENTS

It Gets Better campaign


In 2010 Dan Savage and Terry Miller started a campaign that was intended to provide support and encouragement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are bullied at school.

There are several problems with this approach. First, young people perceive time differently than adults. Most fifteen-year-olds spend little time thinking about where they will be or what they will be doing when they're twenty-five. Looking that far ahead is something that adults do. A middle school or high school student is more worried about how to get through the day today without being harassed, marginalized, shoved aside, put down, verbally abused, or beaten up.

Most people of any age live in the present, not the future. Furthermore, those who work in the field of physical or mental health understand that preventing harm is more efficient and humane than trying to treat an ill patient.

Second, young people respond poorly to advice from older people. This is because we elders have a credibility problem with them. After all, it's adults who design, staff, and maintain the schools (as well as their sibling institutions, the youth prisons) in which they're currently being abused and harassed.

Third, the notion that when you grow up you can find your community in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York is misguided. Heterosexuals don't need to move to live the life they want to live. They can live anywhere. If I were an LGBT youth, I wouldn't want to ghettoize myself. The ghetto mentality is destructive.

Fourth, the notion that being an outsider in school gives you an edge later in life is equally misguided. What about all the people who fall into depression, engage in self-destructive behavior, or commit suicide as a result of mistreatment in school? I admire Ellen, Madonna, and Oprah as much as anyone for their ability to overcome obstacles, but there are a lot more bullied teenagers in school today than there will ever be slots on network television.

A related trap for those who are different, or who are perceived as different, is gradualism. "We gave you one crumb yesterday and two crumbs today, so don't complain." You deserve the same rights, dignity, and respect as anyone else. And you deserve them today. You should never accept a lesser, second-class status, nor promises of a better future that never comes.

Rather than vague promises that the externalities of their lives will improve over time, young people need practical advice on how to cope with the specifics of their present situation. For example, identifying and naming the inappropriate behaviors of others. Such as, "Are you trying to intimidate me?" or "Why do you feel the need to put me down?" or "I'm not going to let you make me feel badly about myself. I think I'm okay and that's all that matters to me." Put the burden of explanation and justification on them, where it belongs. Their harassing behavior speaks volumes about their fears and lack of proper upbringing, and often has little or nothing to do with you.

These strategies may not change the bullies, but they will change you. The bullying may not stop, but at least you won't blame yourself for it. On the contrary, you've taken the first step toward taking control of your circumstances.

Admittedly, such strategies may only work for mild or episodic abuse. For more serious or persistent abuse, you need to get out of there. You're in an unhealthy environment for your growth as a human being. You're in danger of losing whatever health you may still have. Insist on changing schools. If there are no safer schools in your area, ask your parents to inquire about home schooling.

While useful coping strategies may exist, there's a limit to how much adolescents acting individually can do to end bullying in their schools, and there's a limit to how much we adults should expect them to do.

If your home is the problem, don't hesitate to seek intervention from child protective services.

It's astonishing, disturbing, and perplexing to learn that so many students have no one to turn to. Apparently, no parent, counselor, teacher, older relative, or friend of the family is willing or able to help. Whatever your home life may be, you've been educationally and developmentally abandoned, in too many cases with predictable outcomes.

You have a legal right to an education. You can't learn much in school, however, if you feel unsafe there.

Don't wait for adults to do the right thing and stop the bullying. And don't wait until you get to college to organize for change. Your school won't get better until you make it better. Get together with your peers and put together training and awareness programs for incoming students, as well as refresher classes for older students. Let them know which behaviors are acceptable at your school and which are not. Peer-to-peer, grade-level-to-same-grade-level training is more effective than adult-to-child.

Be aware that the school administration may try to shut you down. Once they see that you're serious and you aren't going away, they may try to co-opt, institutionalize, and take credit for your reforms. Don't let them. Institutionalizing your programs is just another way of institutionalizing you. Don't let them institutionalize you. You're too young to be in an institution.

Notions of difference, whether or not they're related to sexuality, are always changing. You know your needs and those of your peers better than the school administrators do.

Signing onto any school-sponsored program for change may ultimately prove self-defeating. Doing so risks locking in dysfunctional behaviors, while providing the school with a cover or rationale for their continuing passivity, indifference, and inaction.

Bullying anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason, is unacceptable and must stop. We don't allow students to strike each other with their fists, and neither should we allow them to hurt each other with words. The physical, mental, and emotional damage you receive from bullying may not be fixable. It's heartwarming to talk about overcoming adversity, but it's much better not to need to fix it in the first place.

We don't have a homophobia problem, we have an acceptance problem that goes beyond sexual orientation. Call it philiaphobia, a fear of the universal brotherly and sisterly love that crosses all boundaries and designations and is the tie that binds us together as humans.

Finally, and I saved the most important point for last, adults must commit to ending bullying in their own lives. We must stop bullying in the media, on the Internet, in politics, and in the workplace. Only then will bullying in the schools stop. If we adults can't support our students' attempts to end bullying in their schools, then we should at least have the courtesy and respect to get out of their way.


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