The queer youth suicides this month have been a serious cause for reflection. For sure, they’ve been an occasion for many of us to look at the violences and despair we’ve survived, especially as once young people lacking any meaningful safety net. Probably the best known response to the suicides this month has been Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. I certainly see the effort of a huge number of adults that have made videos for the campaign as an attempt to reach out to the unknown and inaccessible not-yet-here-queer youth that seem to only become visible once they show up in a news article about suicide. The “It Gets Better” videos mean to let these youth know that they are not alone, and that homophobia and transphobia are sometimes survivable.
As I considered making one of these videos, these questions came to mind: What is it, exactly, that we hope to accomplish by making videos detailing our own histories of violence and harassment, especially when the intended audience already well knows of these? Do we, as adults, still feel on some level alone and unable to effect these experiences beyond the retelling? What is the role of internalized homophobia in convincing us that we do not have real capacity to take care of people, maybe even people younger than us?
I understand that queer lives are often structured in such a way that we usually don’t know tons of much older or younger folks. This by no means means that we don’t otherwise have the power to make changes in the world that make sexual and gendered difference more livable, and that when we consider how to do this, that young people should not be at the center of this question. And so, I have a suggestion: let’s not simply view the loss of these lives as a chance to remember all we’ve been through. Let’s use that very remembering as a chance to reconnect with a sense of all the work that still needs to be done in the world, and that we have the means to do.
Much of the “It Gets Better” campaign seems to assume all will be well if LGBTQ youth stick it out long enough to leave their communities of origin. In other words, safety will become available when a young person has the means to move to a city or neighborhood with a large LGBTQ population and can reorganize his/her/their/zir life on the basis of an LGBTQ identity, trumping ties to family, community, and place--an exchange that might turn out to have unreasonably high costs to youth of color and immigrant youth. It is presumptuous that an LGBTQ identity should or will become the organizing principal of every LGBTQ person’s life. Even as I am grateful for a life in the queer cultural and political spaces of San Francisco, I believe there are losses that accompany such a shift.
And how should these young people find the means to live apart from the support of their families? Besides rising unemployment, the last few years in California have seen a massive defunding of state-funded higher education. The number of eligible high school graduates in the state getting accepted to the CSU and UC system is falling, as out of state admissions rise. Poor, working class, and some middle class youth who are admitted may find their families cannot afford the new tuition hikes. LGBTQ youth who lack family support are not considered for independent financial aid for six years after high school graduation. And after the transfer of 800 billion dollars of tax payer aid to wall street, there is no serious relief planned for the unmanageable student debt that saddles so many young people post-college.
For those LGBTQ youth who do come to San Francisco, the video campaign’s assumed promised land, they may find a city with no dedicated LGBT-safe shelter, an LGBT Community Center with no dedicated youth space and a youth program which only recently avoided a 100% budget cut, a Castro recreation center which began charging fees for use of the dedicated youth drop-in space, a mayor that can imagine nothing better to do with young people with no place to go than to criminalize them for being on public sidewalks, and a Castro business sector ready to elect a supervisor that supports the same Sit/Lie ordinance.
What I mean to point out, is that the conditions in which “things got better” for some LGBTQ adults in the video campaign have changed, even as they never applied to everyone. What I also mean to say, though, is that there are things that can be done. Things we can do to “make it better.” And that many of these things are not only about reaching out to the individual youth who might refer to youtube in a moment of desperation (though even after all I’ve said, that’s a fine start). Many of the things we can do involve taking seriously the role of adults in making a more livable world for young people and building youth capacity in this regard. This would include prioritizing access to public education, stopping increasing criminalization of youth, seeing the institution of anti-bullying curriculum (not criminalization), and supporting spaces for LGBTQ youth to build relationships, and understanding these as high priority LGBTQ issues.
Questions about the youth recreation campaign: firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions about LGBTQ shelter project: Tommi at Housing Rights Committee