It doesn’t get better for anyone if we don’t make it better for everyone
A spate of youth suicides made headlines in September 2010, but it wasn’t because suicides are social anomalies (see Durkheim on this point). No, the newsworthiness of these losses clustered around a common thread: young men violently and incessantly harassed for identifying or simply seeming to be gay found no other relief available to them than taking their own lives. In the first few months of 2010, mainstream media drove home the cost of bullying and its cyber manifestations with stories of the lives of 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi (9/22/10), originally from Ridgewood, N.J.; 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana (9/9/10); Seth Walsh, 13, from Tehachapi, California (9/28/10); Asher Brown, 13, of Houston Texas (9/23/10); 19-year-old Johnson and Wales university sophomore Raymond Chase, originally from Monticello, New York (9/29/10); and Norman, Oklahoma’s Zach Harrington, 19 (10/5/10).
Within days of those first few heartbreaking stories, celebrities, like author Dan Savage and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, implored all young LGBT-identifying people to hang on. Give yourself time and, when you grow up, Savage and DeGeneres passionately asserted, you’ll blossom and fly away from the grief you’re weathering now. Persevere.
The problem with perseverance: it suggests that time, rather than social action, is the most effective weapon that protects us from anti-queer violence. While we can all agree that giving queer and questioning youth hope through allies and queers’ testimonies that it can get better (http://www NULL.itgetsbetter NULL.org), those narratives of survival only meet change halfway. It takes three more (big) things to transform queer young people’s lives: 1) honest reckoning with the social barriers that make it more likely for some young people’s lives to get better than others–rural, working poor youth, for example, don’t fly away as often as we think so they have to make do where they are; 2) active intervention of all adults and peers who are in spitting distance of harassment and violence and 3) recognition that anti-queer violence is less about hurting queer kids in particular and much more about using norms–shouting and pushing people into the shapes we expect, whether they be ideals of body, gender, immigrant status, or wealth–to contain us all. Emphasizing one strategy over or to the exclusion of the others not only fails to prevent LGBT-identifying suicides, it diverts our attention from the structural violence that permeates educational institutions and young people’s daily lives. Let’s stop looking for the clean or obvious line that divides teasing or youthful (“boyish”) antics from violence and harassment. When we collectively agree to stop and question any moment that plays difference against norms to diminish another human being or ignores how bullying interlocks with other social inequalities, we will be on the road to making it better. If you think that sounds crazy or too idealistic, just play through a few clips from The Make It Better Project (http://www NULL.makeitbetterproject NULL.org) to get inspired.