Allen Ginsberg saved my life. Listening to his crass celebration of sexuality, his explorations of his suicidal tendencies, his vivid descriptions of madness sweeping through his generation, and his hatred of the military, the state, and the church, I found a friend, a mentor, and someone I resonated with. He was bitter, perverted, and outcast like me. Thus, in my moments of utter despair and self-loathing, as a youth, I’d turn up the volume on tapes of his poetry and feel free and alive. And I survived.
If my Mom was concerned that I was a depressive kid suffering from bullying and decided to hand me a book with Bill Clinton, a bunch of liberal preachers, a few sex-columnists and a slew of rich married people telling me life would get better, I’d have burst into tears or chopped up the book for an art project. Either way, within hours, I’d be jerking off to Ginsberg’s Howl again.
To this day, when I’m self-destructive and depressed, I’m not in a space where I want to listen to successful people talk about how good their lives are. I want to hear raw, painful, complex truth.
So for me, reading the affirming words of successful members of the LGBTQ and allied communities in It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, I felt skeptical that the book was doing anything more than helping older people feel better about themselves.
I too love telling childhood war stories of overcoming bullies and surviving violence. Like many adults, I’m proud I survived.
But do our stories really change people? Somehow our narcissism makes us feel like we are doing are part. Are we?
With excellent intentions, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller started the “It Gets Better” online video project as a response to the suicides of a number of gay youth. The idea was that if kids could hear from successful LGBTQ people living normal lives, the youth could overcome the pains of bullying and survive. The book compiles edited transcripts of the best of the older generations’ video testimonies.
Most of the entries in the book are from socially privileged and economically successful people. We don’t hear from the homeless, people in nursing homes, incarcerated people, or others suffering through the violence of the system. We mostly hear from folks who have walked the gauntlet of white high school hallways and perceive that they’ve come out on the other side where life is a bowl of ripe strawberries. How irritating for the rest of us.
Were the book’s biggest crime the self-indulgence of older LGBTQ folks it would be passable; however, reading Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama support victims of bullying is enough to make socially aware LGBTQ youth upchuck in their mouths. How could politicians who have been supporting military-might across the world for a decade have anything reasonable to say about the issue of bullying? After waging wars that have killed hundreds if not thousands of LGBTQ youth in Iraq and Afghanistan, how dare they pretend to sympathize with the suicidal tendencies of youth in the United States?
Despite powerful older people blowing smoke up the asses of a younger generation, a few entrances in It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living ring true, perhaps even useful.Kate Bornstein opens her piece with the most honest words in the book: “I don’t always think it is going to get better. Sometimes it gets worse.” She argues that outside of being mean, young people can do anything, and she really means anything, to make life worth living. She goes so far as to admit that at times the only reason she’s lived is to do illegal things. According to her, as long as people are not mean, they are ethically okay.
Luan Legacy writes quite bluntly: “I’ve never been a big advocate of hope, and I never will because, frankly, hope is for losers. Hope is for people who are too lazy to solve their own problems so they rely on hope.”
Legacy’s critique of hope could be used to articulate my trouble with this book and why I suspect it won’t be that powerful for most youth. It is based in hope, in the wrongheaded argument fueling the American dream: “You can be anything you want in life if you want it bad enough.”
Guess what, middle-aged messiahs: it’s not true.
Some people will suffer from mental illness their entire lives and may very well die from it. Despite all the affirming words that their friends, family, and self-congratulatory, talking heads on Youtube videos say, they may still feel that there is nothing worth living for. Suicide is their last decision and I believe it should be respected.
Unfortunately, Legacy goes on to make some blanket statements about suicide I find rather offensive. ”Suicide is quitting. Suicide is you not having enough respect for your own life that you just give up. You should never give up.”
I find it crass for the living to judge the dead for their choices. Why does our society disgrace the last decision a person who died by suicide ever made? While we can inspire people to fight to live, we should not do so by insulting their autonomy and their free will to end their lives. Instead of judging the dead, we should live to take action against our oppressors and struggle to find reasons to thrive.
Urvashi Vaid writes eloquently in her piece entitled “Action Makes it Better,” that “The only reason big changes happen is when people like you and me decide to fight for things to change, when we take action to make things different.” Instead of arguing that things “get” better, Vaid argues we have to fight to make them better. She uses the example of Gandhi’s multi-decade struggle to free India from the British to demonstrate action creates change.
The book is peppered with a handful of inspired writings. Nonetheless, the crux of the book perpetrates a condescending “we’ve been there done that” attitude from one generation to the next.
If youth survive, it will not be because older folks tell them, “It gets better, just wait.” Youth will survive because they take action, fight back, and discover reasons to live. They will forge the path towards their own survival. It will not be determined by us older folks. While our fights are indeed inspirational, young people are figuring their shit out and are in charge of their destiny. No amount of autobiographical history and inspiration can change that.