Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It Gets Better

A Statement by Lonely Christopher

For those of you unfamiliar with Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project congratulations for being so sheltered from all media, but it’s a YouTube video campaign designed as a reaction to the recent publicity over the bullying-related suicide deaths of gay teenagers across the United States. The idea being that, upon hearing stories of tormented LGBT youth who killed themselves out of despair developed through environments of homophobia, abuse, and anti-gay hostility, writer Dan Savage wished he could speak to the teenaged queer community to try and convince troubled youth that middle and high school is torturous, but life gets a lot better and is therefore worth sticking around for. Then he realized that he needn’t wait around for invitations to address this demographic, as YouTube offered him a platform to forgo traditional venues and speak to them directly. The It Gets Better Project began with a great video by Dan Savage and his husband Terry (watch it here) and then opened up the floor for other video contributions. Since then, hundreds of videos have been posted, including a humorous one by actor Jeffrey Self, a very moving one by a councilman in Fort Worth, and many others by regular folk and celebrities alike. While the furious stream of videos tends to become repetitious (the main message being “Don’t kill yourself, wait it out, because it gets so much better”), I feel the project is complicated and tremendously justified. Early on, I decided to create my own contribution for It Gets Better. After drafting a statement and filming it, though, I declined to submit it for several reasons. The project became a cause célèbre overnight and I felt my slightly academic tone was incongruous with the accessibility of the main and, considering the wealth of videos from everyday individuals as well as the slightly condescending ones from famous media figures, both gay and straight, the anti-suicidal musings of a frequently suicidal experimental poet named Lonely Christopher could be both inconsequential and confusing.

First of all, the idea of some weirdo calling himself Lonely Christopher trying to convince queer youth that one day they will not feel so alone is problematic. I felt like I had to address this situation before reaching the fundamental point of my statement, which resulted in an overlong, self-involved preamble. I explained, don’t worry! it’s only an arty pseudonym, I’m really a friendly, semi-adjusted, and sociable person. Wondering if that was really enough, I then went on to try to posit the concept of “loneliness” as a profound and positive characteristic. I attempted this by citing my favorite poem by Emily Dickinson (you can tell how the video is already derailing here). Here is the poem:

‎There is another Loneliness
That many die without –
Not want of friend occasions it or circumstance of Lot

But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be revealed
By mortal numeral -

I then attempted to pose this heightened concept of loneliness as a metaphor for queerness, in such a way that a traditionally negatively perceived disposition could be viewed as a liberatory, ultimately subversive, benefit. Like loneliness, queerness is also often viewed in an unfavorable, unhelpful way. But, as Dickinson proves in her poem on loneliness, there is also no singular definition for queerness, what it means to be gay, or whatever word one uses to identify as LGBT. That suggests that one can push past the stereotypes and cultural restrictions around being gay and understand queerness as a special opportunity --- a gift, even, that not everybody has, through which one can really actualize one’s self in a tremendous way. I ended this overwrought point with the only line in the statement I really like: “I guess this is an overly complicated way of saying that I think being queer is basically a super power.”

After that regrettable introduction, which was unnecessary and haughty enough to discourage me from posting the video, I got around to my main purpose (and drew my point out in such a way that my video would have been significantly longer than most offerings available through the project). So that my misguided efforts do not go completely to waste, I here offer the entirety of the rest of my statement (addressed directly to the hypothetical youth watching the video):

You have to celebrate yourself as a queer individual. I know that it’s hard --- and it doesn’t automatically entail coming out to your friends or school or parents, but what I really mean is that you not only have to accept yourself in your own mind, but you have to allow yourself to understand all the ways that you are valuable, unique, and gifted --- and how being queer plays into your perception of self and the world around you. Again, that’s an incredibly hard task. I know I didn’t understand how to view my sexuality in a wholly positive light for many years after I discovered I was queer. That was when I was maybe thirteen, if you can believe it. Many other LGBT people say that they knew at a much earlier age, but I don’t think I was situated in a cultural climate where I was able to understand that about myself preternaturally. It really took until puberty, when I began developing sexual attractions to boys instead of girls, when the possibility dawned on me. And when it did, it was very bad news --- a real private struggle that I was completely alone in and lacked the critical faculties to negotiate. Basically, when these attractions came to my attention, I thought, “Oh no! Please, no! Not another problem I have to deal with!” And this particular problem really did feel like the biggest one in the world --- and one I was experiencing in complete isolation at first.

When I was growing up, “the gays” were only discussed in what was perceived to be a negative context such as AIDS. Being gay was construed as such an unspeakable fault, it seemed almost like anybody so much as talking about it was under suspicion for being a sexual deviant. Sometimes it seems so easy to understand how silly and thoughtless this cultural taboo placed around homosexuality really is, and how insubstantial and indefensible. But that didn’t help me much in school. I was so afraid of being abnormal I really didn’t come out to anybody throughout middle school and high school. It was just inconceivable that something like that, an out gay kid, could actually exist and be in any way accepted or live a normal life. There was a definite environment of homophobia, perpetrated by the students and enforced by the adults, which kept all the queer kids at school very, very quiet about it. At the time, I had male friends who were very worried that I wasn’t taking the same interest in girls as they were. So they set me up with a string off blundering homecoming and prom dates, girlfriends who lasted about a week and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t interested in making out, all of that. And, of course, I had to suffer, day in and day out, hearing almost everybody my age using the word “gay” in a derogatory way, “That’s so gay,” accusing each other of being sissies or fags when they were acting stupid, and all the rest. And whenever I was suspected of being one of those unspeakables, a fag, there was verbal abuse and casual bullying involved.

It was just not a pleasant environment for me to grow up in. I hated school so much. And, you know, when I was a junior, at sixteen, I did try to kill myself. In many ways, first of all, not feeling able to be honest with my parents about who I knew I was, but also, the climate of abuse and mental torture which I experienced, and which I know is prevalent for many others even now, in many ways these were the major contributing factors to my decision to try and prematurely end my life. Fortunately, my attempt was nonfatal --- I was discovered and hospitalized. Being in the hospital, personally, didn’t help me, because even in that drastic situation I was not able to be honest with the doctors and with my family about my sexuality. So that wasn’t really addressed, but I survived, and went back to school --- and somehow I just got through it. And now, of course, it is very obvious that the idea of ending my life was the absolute wrong way to handle that situation. I know that now because, as they say, it gets better.

One of the ways I got through it, I think, was with the Internet. This was a new instrument that just a few years before wasn’t really around. But since it was there, and I had access to it, I was able to discover whole worlds that existed outside of my drab small-town nowhere life --- worlds that were so much more vibrant, cultured, exciting, sexy, and filled with opportunity. I realize that the Internet is and always was a platform for hate and cyber-bullying, which is a problem it seems many teenagers deal with today, but it’s just as much, and I’m sure more, of a positive resource for intelligence, for learning, for communication. Online, I was able to connect with other queer kids my age, far away but in the same situation as I was in, and we were able to form a sort of way of supporting each other from a distance. Also I was afforded access, through the Internet, to forms of culture and troves of information that I would have not otherwise received. If you are watching this video right now, that means that you are utilizing the Internet as a tool to learn about what exists outside of your personal experience. And that’s fabulous.

With the Internet, and reading a lot, and watching lots of movies, and coming into contact with gay culture whenever I could, whether that meant watching Queer as Folk late at night with the volume turned down low so my parents wouldn’t hear or renting John Waters movies from Blockbuster, I gained a lot of perspective and realized that my world, the one I felt stuck in, was not the end of the world. So while my experience with boys was rather limited as a teenager --- and when I did have brief encounters with boys, usually boys from a few towns over, we had to sneak away to the isolated train tracks to even hold hands or briefly kiss --- while I didn’t have much in the way of boyfriends at that age, I did eventually grow comfortable with being more of myself more openly, and expressing myself publically. And although that still did not mean coming out to more than a few very close and understanding female friends --- it meant that I learned how to care less about how the bullies and dullards around me thought of what I did and how I looked or acted. So, with varying degrees of success, I tried to keep afloat during an extended period of depression, self-hatred, confusion, guilt --- all of which contributed to frequent absenteeism in school, plus alcohol and drug abuse --- and then, one day, it was all over.

I left town, went to college in Brooklyn, and never really looked back. And of course I’ve continued to have bad periods, and I make mistakes all the time, but… really, really… the struggle was worth it and the struggle was an education… and, very quickly after I left high school I was prepared to live out of the closest, even though it took me four more years to tell my family, I never again had to lie to my friends about who I was. Because I went to college, I went to art school, I went to the city, and found it very liberating, and found it a place where my queerness was a benefit rather than a deficit, and all sorts of wonderful things happened. I met so many fantastic friends, both queer and straight, who are very supportive, I read a lot of queer theory and became very interested in gay rights activism, I even met my beautiful boyfriend Ryan when we were both featured in a queer poetry reading --- and never again did I have to worry about those things that tormented me when I was younger on the overwhelming level which they were occurring at the time. The first time I held hands with another boy, in the city, and walked down the street without anybody batting an eye, let alone yelling “fag” at us --- it was a revelation. It gets better, seriously, and you’re going to see that so soon.

In conclusion, I want to return to the Dickinson poem, a little bit. Because there is another queerness that many die without. But not you. You have it. If you take anything from this statement, I hope it’s that being queer is whatever you can possibly define it as --- you. Nobody else has the right to define what your sexuality means to you, and the role it plays in your life. And nobody has the right to make you feel terrible about being LGBT. The reality is that we live in a heteronormative society, and that kind of violence and discouragement is still widely tolerated, and you are going to experience discrimination --- but we all face those challenges, we all have our stories, and when we’re determined to stick it out, to refuse to be beaten down by anti-gay abuse, we win. We allow ourselves to live, and to love, and to grow, and that makes us unfathomably lucky. And, you know, I think kids that are fifteen, sixteen, going to school right now --- you are the kids that are going to change the world. So much has happened for gay rights since I was that age --- just that it has become a topic of consistent national debate seems like a miracle to me (despite the vitriol over the issue that comes from certain, ignorant groups of people). So, please, think big, continue, and don’t let your present circumstances cloud your vision of the future.


That is the end of my statement. Reading it over again, I feel slightly sorry I wasn’t able to figure out how to reformat it to fit the general structure of the project, but I don’t think its absence on YouTube is a terrible detriment, especially considering all the great videos available on the It Gets Better channel. I recently visited my family, in Western New York, and regrettably dragged some of my old notebooks out of storage in the backyard shed. Reading my journals and letters from high school for the first time since I wrote them, I was struck by how absolutely miserable I felt. One friend with whom I corresponded at the time described my lengthy and tortured letters as a model in suicidal ideation. And, at the time, I absolutely lacked any foresight whatever, beyond the intense desire to leave my hometown surroundings as soon as humanly possible, so whatever happened in school, with being ostracized and mocked, and with my non-comprehending family, it all felt completely inescapable. But, of course, it wasn’t; that is the primary message the It Gets Better Project is delivering to our nation’s LGBT youth. And that is entirely admirable.

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