“When an LGBT kid commits suicide, it’s because they can’t see a future with enough joy to compensate for the pain they are suffering now,” said Dan Savage, co-founder of the It Gets Better Project, during an April 29 appearance at Elmhurst College.
But the advice, support and hope provided by It Gets Better, his national campaign to reach lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth through YouTube videos, has helped to talk many teens off the ledge, he said before an audience of nearly 1,300 people who filled Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel and also watched on video screens in the Frick Center.
A frank, often-profane columnist, author and activist, Savage spoke out against people who bully and torment LGBT youth, schools that don’t crack down on bullying, homophobic parents, the Religious Right in general and the Family Research Council in particular. Savage received a standing ovation at the end of his lecture, but also responded to challenges from anti-gay activists during a question-and-answer period.
In the fall of 2010, Savage learned that an Indiana teen named Billy Lucas, who was “perceived to be gay,” had committed suicide. Savage said middle and high schools often do little or nothing to prevent bullying of LGBT youth, who typically struggle privately with their identity because they have no one to turn to for help, including their parents. Those circumstances too often lead to depression, despair, and even suicide— the group has a suicide risk four times greater than teenagers as a whole. If they have homophobic parents, Savage said, the risk is eight times greater.
Savage wished then that he had a way to reach and reassure high school and middle school LGBT kids. Then it dawned on him that You Tube offered the opportunity to reach them directly. “I realized I was waiting for permission that was no longer required.”
Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project in September 2010 with a single video posted on YouTube. The video was an appeal to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to post their own videos to support LGBT teenagers who are being bullied and harassed. Savage’s original hope was to generate 100 videos.
More than 50,000 videos have been posted since, by ordinary people, celebrities, political and civic leaders (including President Barack Obama), professional sports teams, the staffs of corporations like Pixar, Google and Facebook, and Elmhurst College students. The videos have attracted more than 40 million viewers.
“The goal was to save lives, and we have done that. We have saved hundreds of lives,” he said. Though he offered no statistics to support that, Savage said comments left by scores of LGBT kids who have viewed the videos demonstrate how they have been helped by the project.
Despite the broad reach of the It Gets Better Project, Savage said, “It can’t end bullying, and we never said it would. It’s not a vaccine to prevent bullying. It can’t stop all suicides. It will save some lives, but hope can’t save everyone.”
Savage added that the “poisonous contributions injected by the Religious Right can’t be ignored” as one of the forces driving LGBT teens to suicide. He described the Christian Right as “synonymous with anti-gay bigotry,” using biblical references to justify their opposition to LGBT rights and acceptance.
“We have got to learn to ignore what the Bible says about gay people, the same as we have to ignore what it says about clams, and shellfish, and figs and facial hair,” he said. “We already ignore what it says about adultery and slavery. The Bible is pro-slavery, and we pretend it’s just not there.”
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member challenged Savage over what he termed “vicious” parodies of the family name of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and asked whether Savage was being a bully.
“I reserve the right to despise people who despise me,” Savage responded, noting that Santorum would ban gay marriage, prevent gays and lesbians from adopting children and reinstate anti-sodomy laws.
The co-host of the MTV program Savage U, Savage frequently mixed humor with his frank talk, describing how gays have become more accepted since he came out to his parents at age 15.
“I was not only telling them I was gay, I also was telling them I would never marry, I would never have a child and I would never be a Marine,” he said. But since then he and his partner have married, have adopted a child and, Savaged wryly added, “We can be Marines now. Things have gotten better.”
Before the lecture, Savage accepted a $300 donation from students belonging to the Suicide Prevention Awareness Network at Hinsdale Central High School. Savage said the money will be given to the Trevor Project, a national group that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Art students from an Elmhurst College printmaking class also presented Savage with a 4-foot-long print illustrating the It Gets Better Project.