Dan Savage Talks About Why He Wants Gay Teens to Know "It Gets Better"

TakePart's exclusive interview with outspoken advice columnist.
Dan's message is simple: tell bullied teens there are better times ahead.
May 3, 2011· 8 MIN READ
Max Foller previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

From its inception, we've been telling you about the It Gets Better Project — the anti-bullying campaign launched by columnist Dan Savage in response to a troubling spate of gay teen suicides last fall. The campaign took off like a rocket, and was embraced by politicians, celebrities, corporations, and every day folks. TakePart caught up with Dan at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend to talk about the campaign's unexpected success, its impact on American politics, and the disturbing lack of Republicans unwilling to tell teenagers they shouldn't kill themselves.

TakePart: So it's actually a simple enough idea: adolescence can be crappy. Things get better. But the project has had this immense impact. What was the genesis of the campaign?

Dan Savage: Well I read about the suicide of Justin Aaberg, and I read about the suicide of Billy Lucas, who was a 15-year old kid in Greensburg, Indiana who may or may not have been gay, and who was bullied for being gay, and I had the same reaction that so many LGBT adults have when we hear these stories. Which is that we ache, because we were there, and we remember what that period of our lives was like. That isolation and hopelessness and despair. And we got through it, and things got better in ways that we could not have anticipated. These kids need to know that. They need to hear from us. But we don't have permission to talk to them. The bullied queer kid who most needs to hear from a gay adult and be given hope by the example of our lives, is least likely to have the parent who would allow their queer kid to speak with an openly gay adult, or have gay role models. And so just thinking about Billy Lucas last fall, and being really upset by it — you know I was traveling from college to college as I usually do, and I was thinking "man I should really be going from high school to high school, and middle school to middle school, but I'd never get an invitation to speak at a middle school or high school."

TakePart: Is that true? Do you not get invitations to speak at —

Dan Savage: I do now. But I didn't then. And I would never get permission from parents to speak to these kids. And I just realized that I was waiting, in the YouTube era, for permission that I no longer needed. I could record a video and speak to them directly.

A gay kid who kills himself at 14, 12, 15, is saying two things: He can't picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain he's in now. But also, he knows there are openly gay adults out there who are happy, but he doesn't know how he gets from where he is now, to where we are. That path isn't illuminated. And the idea behind the videos is to illuminate that path.

You know, the kid who is bullied because of his race, religion, class, goes home to parents and family members of the same race, same religion, same class. So they know from the example of the adults in their lives that they can get through it, too. The bullied gay kid doesn't go home to that. Often they go home to more bullying at the hands of their family members. They need to know how we got from where they are now to where we are now, and by sharing our stories with them, we can let them know how you do that. How you live, how you survive, how you cope, how you make it better. How you get out.

TakePart: Were you thinking that maybe a few people would take notice that Dan Savage was doing this? Or did you picture Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi would participate?

Dan Savage: No, no, no! When my boyfriend and I — husband, whatever — and I made the video in a bar near our house, we didn't sit there and go "yeah three weeks later the White House is gonna call and the President is gonna make one."

We had hoped to get 100 videos, maybe 200 videos, because we wanted a real broad sample. You know, not every gay person looks like me and Terry, wants the same things Terry and I have gone after in our lives, has the same religious backgrounds or ambitions that we have. So we wanted videos from queer folks of all persuasions. We figured we needed maybe 100. I had no expectation that it would explode the way it has. You know, there are It Gets Better Projects down in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Latin America — there's one that's being put together now in Vietnam. There was no way I could have anticipated it.

TakePart: There was a time right when it was starting to take off that a lot of straight adults started submitting videos. And there was a little bit of push back saying that they don't belong as part of this project. And you both decided to keep those videos. Why was that important to you?

Dan Savage: Well when you're a gay kid — say you're a gay kid growing up in a small town in the South — there are no gay adults anywhere. The people picking on you at school are straight. The people picking on you at home in the worst possible and most damaging way, are your parents who are straight, your siblings who are straight. You're dragged to a church on Sunday where straight people bully you from the pulpit. As we've seen in many of these cases, kids are pursued outside of school and bullied by straight people. You can end up concluding that all straight people are your enemies and will be forever. Kids need to know that one of the ways it gets better is that straight people get better, and that not all straight people are your enemy, and that your parents may come around, and that there are straight politicians who are on your side.

So we felt, from the outset, that when the first straight videos started coming in and we got yelled at — if I was a straight kid, knowing that the President was on my side would give me hope. And I think of Ezra Klein, a straight political geek nerd who writes for The Washington Post who did a video about how he coped with the bullying he was put through during school. And it's a terrific video with some terrific, constructive advice about getting through it, from a straight guy, talking to gay kids. What's not to like about that?

TakePart: When you had people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Speaker Pelosi — these are people who are in positions to move the needle a little bit — participating in the project, there was criticism about whether they were doing everything they can for gay rights and equality. Is that criticism on the mark? Or is that a distraction from the message the project is trying to convey?

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, made a video where he said to LGBT kids, basically, New York loves and accepts everyone, come to New York. Basically inviting LGBT teenagers who are being bullied to come to New York. 40 percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT kids who were thrown out after they were outed or came out.

At the same time he made his video, he was slashing city funding for the Ali Forney Center, which is the only shelter in New York, basically, for runaway queer teenagers. And people were able to scold him, call him a hypocrite, and point at his video and point at what he was doing. And he reversed himself. He restored the funding. So there have been instances where the participation of a politician has then been able to be used as leverage to hold them to their promises, hold them to their rhetoric.

You know, Barack Obama made his video before the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal, before dropping the DOMA appeal, before they really started getting as active as they are in combatting anti-gay bullying. And I think it contributed and helped. No one was more critical of the Obama Administration than I was in the first 19 months. Valerie Jarrett went out and gave a speech called "It Gets Better," — that was the title of her speech to the HRC annual black tie dinner in DC. And I wrote a piece where I basically said "fuck you, Valerie Jarrett. Fuck you, White House. You can do more than traffic in hope. You can actually deliver change and make it better. How dare you?" So I am totally down with that criticism. But I think we've seen — really since the It Gets Better campaign and since the midterm elections — a lot of movement from the White House and the Dems on our issues.

TakePart: How do you envision the book being used going forward? Why was it important to take this off the internet and put it in book form?

Dan Savage: Not all kids have access to the internet, and we want the campaign to be used in schools. A lot of schools block access to YouTube because they don't want kids sitting around watching videos of dogs farting all day long. Also there are kids whose parents are very brutally bullying them. Those kids can't risk an incriminating browser history on their home computer. So when those kids have access to these messages at school or at the library or in a book that gets passed around, that's another way to reach them. And we want to press on all fronts. And it's a way for middle schools and high schools to send a message to the queer kids, whether they're out, part of the GSA, or closeted, that the school's on their side. The school supports them just by shelving this book.

TakePart: For people who are moved by the issue of bullying and want to get involved, what have you found to be the most effective ways for people to take action?

Dan Savage: If you're in a place where you can make a difference in the schools, then make a difference in the schools. Schools are the arena where a lot of the bullying goes on. GSA's, anti-bullying programs that include anti-GLBT bullying information. And holding schools and school administrators accountable. Sticking up for the queer kids, whether they're out or gender-nonconforming or not, is huge. Giving money to Trevor [Project] and giving money to GLSEN, supporting the ACLU's LGBT youth project, all these things make a difference. And you know, speaking up: you never know who the queer kid in the room is. Kids who are bullied in middle school and high school are the ones who are clearly out. We've heard from kids who witnessed the bullying, and felt bullied themselves. They feel terrorized because they're the gender-conforming kids who can pass, who are not out. And they're afraid that they'll be a target, too. If you witness four or five kids smack-talking and being homophobic, don't assume you don't have to speak up. You know, you don't have to beat the shit out of them. You don't have to yell at them. But you do have to speak up and say "that's bullshit" or "I don't like that." Just speak up. Because one of those kids might be a gay kid who is traumatized by what he is hearing going on. And just to know there are adults around. If people would just be decent it would make all the difference in the world. Not oppressing people is less work than oppressing people. You have to go out of your way to be an asshole.

TakePart: 20,000-plus videos, which are the ones that stick out in your head?

Dan Savage: There are two. Gabrielle Rivera's video. She's a Latina Lesbian poet from the Bronx who made a video that some people thought we would hate, and we loved. She made a video that said "it doesn't get better; you get stronger." And it was sort of this contra-message that reinforced the message. You getting stronger is one of the ways it gets better. It Doesn't Get Better — It Gets Stronger is the Latina Lesbian Poet Bronx way of saying It Gets Better. And we loved her video. We got to meet her on the book tour in New York. She's terrific. And she's the first person we called when we decided to do the book.

And then Prime Minister David Cameron. I mean you could have knocked me over with a feather when I got a phone call from the White House, but when that came through, both Terry and I were like "holy shit. This is gonna go worldwide." The leader of the Conservative Party. We haven't had a single video from a Republican elected official. Not one.

TakePart: Not one?

Dan Savage: Not one.

TakePart: Has anybody reached out to you and said "we're thinking about this?"

Dan Savage: No. Not one.

TakePart: That's a little surprising.

Dan Savage: That's not surprising when you think for a moment about what the Republican base is.

TakePart: But there are other projects, such as the No H8 photos where there are people —

Dan Savage: There are people who are related. Megan McCain didn't do anything — and fuck Megan McCain. And fuck Cindy McCain. And fuck the Bush Twins. They don't matter. Where is the Republican elected official can at least say "even if I don't support full civil equality for gay and lesbian people, I support gay and lesbian people not killing themselves."