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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] GLB ‘It Gets Better’ … not for everybody

‘It Gets Better’ … not for everybody

ItgetsbetterTelling vulnerable queer and trans teens that it gets better when it doesn’t – especially if you don’t benefit from white, class and able-bodied privilege – is incredibly cruel and heartless, writes Joelle Ruby Ryan.

14 November 2010

As everyone knows, there has been a disturbing rash of suicides by members of the queer community of late.

These deaths have been due to bullying and harassment, and are yet another reminder of the incredibly homophobic, transphobic and patriarchal world in which we live.

A campaign was started by Dan Savage, called “It Gets Better” in which he exhorts LGBT youth to wait around until their lives improve, cuz, well, you know, if you wait around long enough they just get better, and stuff, apparently.

Dan Savage is well known for his biphobia, his transphobia, his fatphobia and his sexism/misogyny. While he likes to think of himself as a politically-incorrect and edgy hipster commentator, he’s really just a straight-up media fiend.

It is not surprising to me in the least that he has become a media darling because he is a white, gender-normative gay man, and because he says lots of offensive things in the name of dominant ideologies.

I could barely make it through his self-serving video about him and his white husband and their adopted kid going to Paris and fashioning a homo-normative family for themselves.

Newsflash Danny: We are not all rich, white, gender-normative, non-disabled gays. Many of us do not just have one strike against us and do not have economic security to fall back upon, or white, able-bodied privilege.

Seeing all the rich white celebrities come forward to try to save the gays has been repulsive to me; in fact while they claim to want to help, why do they make the narratives all about them?

In addition to just despising Dan Savage and his offensive writings, I disagree fundamentally with the phrase “it gets better.”

That certainly has not been true in my case. Every single day, I face transphobia in this society. And fatphobia. And classism. Every single day. It is nightmarish.

In many ways, it has gotten worse. In other ways, it has stayed the same. In very, very few ways, has it gotten better. And I know for lots of other people who deal with multiple identities and multiple oppressions, it has not gotten better.

Telling vulnerable queer and trans teens that it gets better when it doesn’t is incredibly cruel and heartless. I wish more people had been real with me about what was ahead for me in this patriarchal world.

I wish more people had deigned to cut through the bullshit to illuminate the realities of living so different in a society that demands cookie-cutter conformity to hegemonic norms. It has been hell, and it has not gotten any better.

Many of us will never have access to the unbelievable privilege that people like Dan Savage can lay claim to with great ease. His telling us that it “will get better” is like a slap in the face.

As a suicide survivor, I resent it greatly and find it unbelievably offensive. I see it as akin to the grand-daddy of mythologies: the American Dream. The myth of meritocracy. Just work hard and you too can get ahead and climb the ladder of success! Just keep on living and don’t kill yourself and the world around you will magically improve.

There is one thing and one thing alone that has changed this world: radical, committed, relentless, persevering activism. Committed action, rebellion, speaking out and revolution.

This does not mean waiting around for the wind to blow and change life for the better. I hate the phrase: this too shall pass. When I am in existential pain, which I often am, I do not need somebody to pontificate on the healing powers of the universe. I need people to help put agency into my hands, to tell me how to navigate treacherous landscapes, to help me figure out how to advocate for myself and find freedom in my voice and empowerment in my individual and collective actions.

The passive “it gets better” is no help to those of us stuck in a more persistent place of oppression where stubborn structural patterns often refuse to give, even with our non-stop pressure and rage.

I have spent 20 years doing activism to change people’s attitudes toward gender. I have marched, written, picketed, demonstrated, yelled, screamed, rationally argued, chanted, testified, editorialized, lit candles, prayed, made art and more to protest the stultifying binary gender system.

I regret none of it-but here’s the thing: I still have to live in a binary gender system, and it is hell. I still have to live with people looking at me constantly like I am a piece of trash because I am fat and I am transgender and I am a feminist and I am queer.

I still have to navigate academia as a working-class person, a first generation college student, and a person with six figure student loan debt who has no class privilege to fall back upon. It doesn’t matter what fancy letters I get after my name and what positive regard my work may be given: to many in this country I am worth no more than the gum beneath their shoe.

I can’t tell you how many times a heterosexual, gender-normative man (and sometimes woman, but usually a man) has wrinkled up their nose at me or straight-up scowled at me. It’s like, they don’t know anything about me, but they make a snap judgment about my corporeal, existential being, and that judgment is that I fail.

I fail at gender, and that makes me a non-entity.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Read Stone Butch Blues. The novel’s protagonist Jess goes through a lifetime of in-your-face oppression that is unbelievably cruel. And I have heard some people doubt the book because they ask: is it really that bad?

In the brilliant documentary film The Color of Fear, the men of color try to help David, a white man, understand the depth and pain of racism. They ask him why he is so resistant to seeing the white racism for what it is and the harm it has inflicted upon people of color. David states that he was afraid of thinking about the terror and pain that his peers of color have had to go through in racist white America to simply survive.

Facilitator Lee Mun Wah exhorts David to sit with that for a while and think about what it means. What does it mean that for some of us it really is that bad? That our lives are that painful and that due to social hierarchies we will not see significant relief in our lifetimes?

But aren’t I being a negative Nancy? Don’t you need to give teens good news to give them something to live for?

Yes, but it should not include lying to them.

Most of us aren’t going to be rich and famous like Dan Savage. Many of us do not have his race, cisgender and able-bodied privilege. To the extent that things will get better, it is because we fight for them tooth and nail. In the process, we will change, and our lives will take on greater meaning.

One of my friends put it so well: it’s not that things get better, it’s that we get stronger. And in our empowerment and strength, we have the audacity to fight back. There is great joy in resistance and in speaking truth to power.

As Gloria Anzaldua said: I change myself, I change the world.

Joelle Ruby Ryan is a Lecturer in Women's Studies at Bowling Green State University. She earned her Ph.D. in American Culture Studies in 2009 from Bowling Green State University.

Her activist and research interests include: LGBT rights, feminism, racial and economic justice, size acceptance, sex work and film/media literacy and criticism. She is the director of TransGender NH, a support and civil rights group for gender-variant folks in NH. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and blogs at trans*medi(t)ations.

 

Comments   

0 #8 Stuffed Animal 2011-04-01 12:21
I despise Joelle Ruby Ryan's embrace of the Q-word! She unwittingly makes herself part of the problem: Our own enabling of hate speech is one of the reasons it fails to get better. However, I otherwise agree with her criticism of Dan Savage's impotent "It Gets Better" project, which looks more vapid with every celebrity that latches on to it. Nothing will get better for the gender-neutral population until we commit to making it better, like African-America ns did during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. You would never have caught Dr. Martin Luther King sending out the kind of complacent message Dan Savage and his sycophants are sending out to oppressed children. For the message Dr. King did send, read his excellent Letter From A Birmingham Jail.
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0 #7 Del LaGrace Volcano 2010-11-18 02:58
This IT GETS BETTER CAMPAIGN does not resonate for me, personally and I am glad to find that I'm not the
only one who isn't jumping for joy and adding up my liberal gold stars. Is it better than nothing? Probably for some,
perhaps for many, it is. Would it have helped me if some adult told me that it's gonna get better? I seriously doubt
it. But it did help me to know that there were other queers out there and that I wasn't alone.

I rate this along with Kate Bornstein's (who I know and love btw) instruction to 'do what you like, whatever you need to do
to prevent you from killing yourself, but "don't be mean". Facile, saccharine and at the end of the day, not particularly productive.
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0 #6 Cathy DeBuono 2010-11-17 18:44
While I can see that a lifetime of personal experience drove the writer, Joelle Ruby Ryan's writing - I feel it crossed a line. It crossed from a healthy dose of the ugly truth into "go ahead and kill yourself if you are of the weak". I agree with her friend's quote "it’s not that things get better, it’s that we get stronger. And in our empowerment and strength, we have the audacity to fight back. There is great joy in resistance and in speaking truth to power." THIS is what "It gets Better" stands for - the power and maturity to take control of your life. Children do not have this, if they can stay alive as they grow and take the helm of their own lives, it WILL get better than it is in the cruel hallways of high school as a helpless, voiceless, child. Lord knows it doesn't mean we all get rich - but it does mean we will grow into the power to take control. For this message to get lost in a sea of negative, bitter albeit well deserved points of view - would be a travesty. Teach kids to take control of whatever they need to in order to influence the direction of their own lives, NOT that if they are not white and privileged life is gonna suck regardless... This is a dangerous way to be a role model. I applaud the open free expression here, and I'm completely on board with you sister in terms of the gross imbalance of opportunity in the world. But be careful, tread lightly... You wanna change the world? This isn't the way to do it.
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0 #5 Darian Zam 2010-11-16 18:07
Everyone's entitled to an opinion. It's all healthy debate, and as Katrina says, it's fascinating to read people's differing ideas on it. My objective opinion happens to be, that over all it's negative and that it's literally tearing to pieces something that is creating a positive, and perhaps unnecessarily so. That said there happen to be a few people that side with that opinion as you will read both here and on Facebook.
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0 #4 xyl 2010-11-16 05:32
@Darian Zam

Were you even reading the same article? Surely Joelle Ryan's central point was that things don't just magically get better and that we absolutely should NOT "stand by and do nothing at all". I doubt very much that Joelle wants to stand-by and do nothing "whilst the young off themselves". Stating that one way of 'helping' with this issue is problematic doesn't mean that one thinks nothing must be done. To assert that is a straw-man argument..

"As a suicide survivor, I resent it greatly and find it unbelievably offensive. I see it as akin to the grand-daddy of mythologies: the American Dream. The myth of meritocracy. Just work hard and you too can get ahead and climb the ladder of success! Just keep on living and don’t kill yourself and the world around you will magically improve.

There is one thing and one thing alone that has changed this world: radical, committed, relentless, persevering activism. Committed action, rebellion, speaking out and revolution."

Sounds to me like somebody is keeping their "eyes on the bigger picture" pretty bloody well. Sheesh.
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0 #3 Darian Zam 2010-11-15 04:41
As much as I like The Scavenger and the work that goes in to it, I have to agree that I just felt a sense of dread as I read the headline and the further I read, the further I descended into a sense of horror . It is seething with negativity, and dripping with cynicism. I tried to read and understand the points that the author of this article was making, but I have to keep going back to basics - would we rather stand by and do nothing at all? Better to start somewhere than leave the problem to fester, or would everyone prefer to posit themselves as holier than thou like Joelle Ryan whilst the young off themselves, hate crimes continue, and discrimination persists? Keep your eyes on the bigger picture rather than focus on an unforgiving character assassination of some purported poseur.
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0 #2 Alex 2010-11-15 04:22
I do understand what is being said here, and I am as much as a realist as Ms Ryan seems to be, but I have to agree with Celarent.

The campaign is one of hope. It's not guaranteeing that when all discriminated teenagers leave high school, they are propelled into a life of happiness and peer acceptance. No-one's guaranteeing that at all. In fact, no-one's even insinuating it. It doesn't happen.

Savage's campaign is being orchestrated to bring hope to kids who are feeling like life couldn't get any worse. It's simplistic. Leave it at that and fight the urge to open up this (some would say inevitable) can of worms.
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0 #1 Celarent 2010-11-15 02:36
I find this article quite offensive. In the context of a suicide prevention campaign aimed at young people in high schools who need it kept quite simple, this hi-jacking is both meanspirited and wrongheaded. It could lead to some young people feeling even more isolated and hopeless than before. Ignorance to the consequences is no excuse.

What kind of message is "It doesn't get better FOR YOU, cause ur black, or disabled or transgendered and gay and suicidal". I shudder to think what alternative you are advocating for these kids, its kind of left blank really.
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