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July 23, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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No Time To Wait

It won’t get better until we make it better

 

 

In 2010, the tragic death of US college student Tyler Clementi after his room-mate circulated images of him having sex with another male was followed by widespread discussion in the mainstream media of the high rate of suicide by queer teenagers compared to their heterosexual peers.

Along with increased attention to the issue by commentators, there also emerged an anti-suicide viral video campaign, It Gets Better (IGB). The project, led by gay man Dan Savage and his husband, shows the couple speaking about they now live an enjoyable and successful life, despite having been bullied in their youth. It encourages the public to upload similar messages to YouTube.

That a campaign aiming to stop young queer people from taking their own lives is a positive thing seems an obvious enough assumption to make. However IGB has received significant criticism from within queer communities. Scholars like Jasbir Puar (who expressed her concerns in The Guardian) as well as a number of bloggers say the campaign excludes a number of minorities from its message, and detracts from the urgent need for action to change the circumstances many young queer people live in.

One of the main concerns about IGB is its lack of diversity. Critics argue that its predominantly white, urban, middle-class, cis-gendered male frontmen and contributors create a falsely narrow image of “queerness”. This allows only a few young queer people be fully hailed by the campaign—to feel as though it’s speaking to them. The identities of young trans* people, or non-white queer youth are conspicuously erased in the campaign. The lack of submissions from these perspectives suggests the assertion that “it gets better” is untrue: for many people, it does not. A young trans* person, for example, will likely continue to face the same violence and discrimination done to them in their youth throughout their lives.

The way the campaign tells young queer people to “hang in there” because “it gets better” is reminiscent of the conservative “pull yourself up by you own bootstraps” adage (something Puar makes reference to in her Guardian article). Many of those whose identities are not represented don’t have power or upward mobility which allows them to just “hang in there”; society, where forces like racism and sexism are also at play, is structured in a way which prevents them from doing so. Charging people with the responsibility to improve their own situation when they may not be in the position to do so (and when it may never actually get better) comes dangerously close to blaming them for not being resilient enough if they do not make it to adulthood.

Young queer people are suffering and we urgently need to do something about it. Unfortunately IGB’s messages amount to the opposite of a call to action. The assertion that “it gets better” shifts the responsibility to improve a situation to the person experiencing hardship, rather than the society which produces that hardship. Most problematic about the campaign is its underlying message that for queer people, youth is something to be struggled through and survived, not enjoyed. That’s not good enough: we should be able to enjoy our youth as much as anyone else. Instead of telling people to simply “hang in there”, we should be changing the realities they live in.

We need to ask some serious questions. Who gets to be represented in mainstream images of “queer”? Whose deaths register in discussion of the issue of “queer youth suicide”? And why does it take until the extreme point of a suicide for us to understand what has happened as a tragedy? We need to develop a better approach where instead of effectively telling young people to “harden up” and struggle through life until it somehow, eventually, “gets better”, we say their youth is something they should be able to enjoy— not just survive. We need to acknowledge that realities which make people feel they are less than human, or exclude them from being recognisable as such to their peers, are also tragedies which must be changed. This all reminds me of a sign I saw at this year’s Queer the Night march: “It won’t get better until we make it better”.

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