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What's It Really Going to Take to Make It Get Better?

By Olivia Ford

June 1, 2011

Like most "elders" in many communities, it's not rare to hear older LGBT advocates accuse the young generation of not knowing history or appreciating the sacrifices that were made. And while I understand this complaint, I often wonder, "But who is reaching out to teach them this history?"

young people

There is an obvious disconnect. The HIV/AIDS epidemic -- now 30 years in the making -- has profoundly impacted the lack of personal relationships between the "old" and the "new." Just think how much stronger those bonds would have been had AIDS not decimated two generations of potential mentors.

But we must also recognize that even if these bonds were stronger, adults can't begin to comprehend so much about being young and LGBT in 2011. LGBT youth have grown up with the existence of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools and a plethora of diverse LGBT organizations such as FIERCE, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) and Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to name of few. These are places that youth can look to for help, resources and a sense of acceptance. Also, we live in an era of television shows such as Fox's musical sensation Glee (especially Chris Colfer), Pretty Little Liars, Greek, Ugly Betty and Degrassi, which all have LGBT characters that young people can relate to and be affirmed by.

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Teens riding subways see ads of gay men loving each other, and last year Aladdin, a major publishing imprint, released a children's book featuring a 4-year-old African-American boy who likes to dress up like a girl -- written by his mom.

Ah yes, we've come a long way.

But while on paper it appears to be gay, gay, every day for our LGBT youths, statistics -- and our evening news reports -- tell a radically different story. Children and teens are still experiencing societal homophobia, verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of family and peers and higher rates of suicide than their straight counterparts. The 2009 School Climate Survey by the GLSEN revealed that nearly nine out of every 10 LGBT students are harassed in school. According to LGBT youth suicide-prevention advocacy organization the Trevor Project, lesbian, gay or bisexual youth are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers; and nearly half of transgender youths have seriously considered suicide.

And sadly, bullying can impact more than one's mental health. Recently, researchers from the University of Arizona analyzed data and found that being bullied can negatively impact other health outcomes including increasing the risk of HIV infection.

Last year's media blitz about the rash of LGBT suicides prompted Dan Savage, LGBT advocate, noted sex columnist and parent, to publicly make a profound comment: "Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now." He and his partner made and posted a video on YouTube telling LGBT youths that while it may not be great now, "it gets better." Hence the "It Gets Better" campaign was born.

What started as one sole post prompted hundreds of other LGBT adults and allies (including members of The White House staff and numerous celebrities such as Tim Gunn, Ciara and Ellen Degeneres) to create videos that encouraged LGBT young people to keep their heads up, because life does improve -- but you have to be around in order to experience it. And in those bundles of videos, some of the most powerful messages were people speaking of their own survival, of being a gay young person in a time that was even less tolerant than the one we live in now.

Yes, this is thrilling for many reasons. It's important that young people who may truly believe they are alone, who may live in isolated areas or lead otherwise socially constrained lives, have access to this diverse chorus of affirming voices in the click of a mouse. And it's even more exciting that the adult LGBT community finally realized that the power of all those shared experiences of harassment and rejection could connect the "old" and "new," and put those narratives to use in helping coming generations of LGBT folks.

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But it must be pointed out that suicides among LGBT youth isn't a new phenomenon -- the only thing new was that the media was reporting on it. So what kept the grown folks MIA?

Perhaps their own childhood trauma has made it difficult to face head-on the same trauma that young people are going through? Maybe it's envy because LGBT youth have so much more and are not grateful for it. Or the older generation feels completely invisible and doesn't feel comfortable extending a hand, out of fear of being rejected. Or maybe there is a "Why bother?" attitude since so many young people are hard-headed and need to learn their lessons on their own. Or maybe they just stopped caring.

I can't say for sure why LGBT adults have been silent for so long, but what I can say is that telling young people that "we care" isn't really helpful if, at the same time, services and safe spaces for the most vulnerable of LGBT young people are regularly opposed even in known gay enclaves like New York's West Village and San Francisco's Castro District. Telling kids that they are loved means very little if people have abandoned their responsibility to oppose actions that perpetuate prejudice.

See, lip service isn't going to "de-naturalize" the link between misery and being young and LGBT -- only time, effort and authentic understanding will. And that's where Pride2011@TheBody.com comes in.

We hope that this special section can begin bridging the gaps between all generations -- to find out what young people are saying about their own experiences being out and LGBT today; to read what HIV/AIDS advocates of all ages have to say about the history they forged and witnessed; and to use the Comments section of each article as a forum for talking back.

In this special section you will find:

If LGBT young people are to enjoy the safe, affirming environment LGBT adults dreamed of in their own youth, we'll need to do some serious listening to, and learning from, one another. We are each other's future.

Olivia Ford is the Community Manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.




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