Friday, February 24, 2012

Gay Teens: It Gets Better

It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

The intended audience for this book is LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) youth who may be having a hard time dealing with the realization that they are “different” and the recognition by their peers that they are gay. It is intended to reassure them that what they experience as a confusing or hostile environment at this stage of their lives will pass and that their experience of life as a gay man or woman will get better as they get older. Too many young people who face these challenges feel they cannot cope with them and attempt to end their lives.

It Gets Better collects original essays and testimonials with a positive message, written to teens by celebrities, political leaders, and everyday people, some straight but mostly those who fit into one of the LGBT categories. There seems to have been a special effort made by the editors to include testimonials and advice from a variety of racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. A teen reading this is likely to find at least one entry here that closely mirrors his or her situation or experience.

The main theme of these various submissions is to let LGBT teens know that there are others like them out there--a community of support for them--and that the members of this community have gone through what they are going through now, have gotten through it, and are leading successful and fulfilling lives. Certainly one of the virtues of the material presented here is its honesty--the recognition of how things are for these kids now--but these mentors also make clear that “things getting better” is not something that comes without some effort and struggle, without self honesty and a growing sense of self-acceptance.

It Gets Better is a good idea, and it is possible to imagine this being an important book for some teens. But it might be reasonably asked if this is the most effective format for getting the message across. Collecting a variety of essays and testimonials in a number of different voices and styles of writing, in effect an anthology, does not produce a book that is compulsively readable. It is hard to imagine anyone reading this book cover to cover. The shortness of the entries and the focus on a single theme forces a similarity that tends to make them sound cursory and redundant. They become more exhortatory than serving to offer practical and applicable advice or example.

Also, the book has a distance in age and immediacy which is not usually the best way to reach teens. The testimonials are by an older generation, and the experiences are recollected as something that is now in their past. Teens are more receptive to information they hear from peers, from someone who is going through the same experience they are right now. That limitation perhaps suggests the importance of narrative fiction written for young adults on these themes, where the voice of a fictive narrator their age and the details of that person’s experience and coping can be recounted in some sustained and compelling way. It also suggests the importance of peer groups, like high school clubs and gay-straight alliances.

While the message that things get better is a reassuring and important one, it is not the first question that is on the mind of gay youth struggling with bullying, discrimination and self doubt. The first question is, why does it have to be like this, why do I have to suffer through this in the first place? And that’s as it should be, because that’s the question that points to what needs to be changed, the culture of intolerance and discrimination. The sense of injustice and the damage that occurs in youth can last a lifetime, even if it does get better. Words and precepts can help change the culture in which gay youth grow up these days, but the things that matter most are not what people say but what they do. What changes hearts and minds is example. Kids are watching, and what they are watching most closely are the actions of their families, their peers, and the attitudes of the civic and social institutions with which they interact in their daily lives. One place to start is for libraries that carry material that is directed to gay youth to stop placing it in their “Parenting” sections, where the children and teens to which it is directed are unlikely to find it, and where the placement suggests that a young person’s most important and intimate questions that concern their sense of self, and the personal social consequences they face as a result of realizations about their sexual orientation, are matters to be mediated by their parents.

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