Dan Savage: For Gay Teens, Life 'Gets Better'

Terry Miller (left) and Dan Savage. Savage writes the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love." i i

Terry Miller (left) and Dan Savage. Savage writes the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love." Kelly O./Dutton Adult hide caption

itoggle caption Kelly O./Dutton Adult
Terry Miller (left) and Dan Savage. Savage writes the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love."

Terry Miller (left) and Dan Savage. Savage writes the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love."

Kelly O./Dutton Adult

Last fall, several teens across the country committed suicide because they were gay or perceived to be gay. This shocking rash of suicides raised attention about a sobering fact: Gay teens are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight teens, and 9 out of 10 LGBT teens have experienced some sort of harassment in their school, according to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hot line for LGBT youth, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

When advice columnist Dan Savage heard about the suicide crisis unfolding, he had an idea: If older gay people offered hope and encouragement to gay teens, the teens would realize that their lives were worth living. So Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, created a YouTube video about their own experiences being bullied as teens, to tell teenagers a simple message about the future: It gets better.

It Gets Better Project/YouTube

It Gets Better: Dan Savage and Terry Miller

The "It Gets Better" movement, as it's now called, has since received over 10,000 video submissions, including entries from both gay and straight people. President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Silverman, Tim Gunn, Ellen DeGeneres, Vice President Biden, Ke$ha and the staffs of Google, Facebook and Pixar all have contributed to the project. This month, Savage and Miller published a companion book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living, featuring essays from more than 100 of the video contributors.

In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Savage and Miller talk about their marriage, the adoption of their son D.J., the impact their movement has had on teenage bullying, and their own coming out experiences.

Terry Miller's And Dan Savage's Own High School Experiences

Terry Miller is now a stay-at-home father and event promoter living in Seattle. But when he was growing up in Spokane, Wash., he says, high school was rough — really rough. He was teased for how he dressed, how his voice sounded and how he expressed his feelings.

"I couldn't walk down the hall without getting spit at, shoved or pushed around," he says. "At one point I had a pretty bad bullying incident where I was thrown down on some sort of hardened snow in the school parking lot and they shoved my face into it. It was all hardened with rocks from being plowed and it scraped the skin off my face."

Miller's mother went to the school and asked the school counselor what she could do to help him.

"Their response was, 'There's nothing that they could do. If he looks that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there's absolutely nothing they could do to protect me and it was probably just going to happen and that my family should probably just get used to it.' "

His mother was appalled but felt helpless. Miller spent two more years at his high school and found a group of friends who accepted him — but still remembers how the first two years of high school were just horrible.

"When I talked to my mom about this years later — after high school — she just said, 'It was so hard; we didn't know what to say to you,' " he says. "I think if I had come out to my mom or dad at that point, they probably would have worked a little harder to protect me, but I was so ashamed of it too — the hassle I was getting at school, that I just wanted to not live it anymore."

Savage was also bullied but didn't tell his parents what was going on, partly because he didn't want to implicate himself and tell them why he was being bullied. His older brother Billy — who was straight and also viciously bullied in middle school — recently told Dan that there were noticeable differences between the ways they were treated at home.

"He said, 'At the end of the day, I had Mom and Dad and you didn't.' And that really captures the difference between the bullied straight kid and the bullied gay kid," Savage says. "The bullied straight kid goes home to a shoulder to cry on and support and can talk freely about his experience at school and why he's being bullied. I couldn't go home and open up to my parents. I did think about suicide briefly — not because the bullying had gotten so bad, but because I thought that it would be the good Catholic-son thing to do for my parents."

It Gets Better edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller i i

It Gets Better edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller Dutton Adult hide caption

itoggle caption Dutton Adult
It Gets Better edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

It Gets Better edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

Dutton Adult
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living
By Dan Savage (editor), Terry Miller (editor)
Hardcover, 352 pages
Dutton Adult
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Coming Out

When he was 18, Savage decided to tell his mother that he was gay. She didn't initially accept it.

"She came back and told me she was very upset about this and she didn't want to ever meet a boyfriend of mine and she didn't want me to bring any gay people to the house," he says. "She really wanted to have me but not have that."

Soon after, his mother called her priest, who came over to the Savage house to talk with her about Savage's coming out. His mother told the priest that she wanted to put Savage into therapy and that she was very upset.

"And Father Tom put his hand on my mom's knee and said, 'Judy, I'm gay and it's better this way. It's better for Danny to be out than to live like I've lived.' "

It did not take long for Savage's mother to come around — and joke about Savage's relationship with Miller.

"On her deathbed, in Arizona, we were saying our goodbyes and Terry wasn't there and she looked at me and said, 'You tell Terry that I loved him like a daughter.' "

On Parenthood

Miller and Savage are the fathers of a 13-year-old son named D.J. He's in 8th grade, likes skateboarding and has never been harassed for having gay parents.

"If anything, we joke, that we're raising the kid who beat us up in grade school," says Savage. "If he didn't have us for parents — he's a little thuggy snowboarder-skateboarder dude — and I like to think that he's blessed to have us as parents because you can see in him the capacity to be a bully. But he's sensitized to the issue from being from a different kind of family."

Watching D.J. grow up, he says, has made him realize just how much of sexual orientation is hard-wired.

"From the time he was very young, I have been saying, 'Oh my son is straight,' because he is just straight," says Savage. "My mom, when she got over [my being gay] admitted that she kind of thought, all along, that I was gay. I liked to bake and I liked to listen to musicals and for my 13th birthday, I asked my parents for tickets to the Broadway tour of A Chorus Line. That's all I wanted. So I've always known that he's straight."


Interview Highlights

On President Obama's submission to It Gets Better

Terry: "It's pretty historic that the president of the United States would reach out specifically to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in any way whatsoever. This is really kind of a historic moment for us."

Dan: "I came out in 1980 right before AIDS hit. And Ronald Reagan couldn't bring himself to say the word AIDS until 1987, after tens of thousands of gay men had already died. For us to go from launching the project and 3.5 weeks later, the president records a video for the It Gets Better campaign to address gay youth suicide? That was amazing."

On straight people participating in It Gets Better

Dan: "When we initially launched the movement, we said, 'This is for LGBT adults to speak to LBGT youth,' and then some videos started coming in from straight people. And a lot of people really felt ownership over the campaign and they said, 'Take these videos down. This is not what this movement is about.' Actually, Terry and I decided we were going to leave those videos up because that's part of what it is about: One of the ways it gets better is that straight people get better."

On the reasoning behind It Gets Better

Dan: "I believe when a 13- or 14- or 15-year-old gay kid kills himself, what he's saying is that he can't picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for pain he's in now. And watching the suicide crisis unfold last fall, my husband and I decided that we weren't going to be shamed out of speaking to LGBT youth anymore. For a long time when an LGBT adult tried to talk to a gay kid, we were accused of recruiting, of being pedophiles. There was a sort of learned helplessness of the persecution of gay and lesbian children by gay and lesbian adults where we felt like we couldn't address it, like we couldn't talk to them. And the idea behind the project was for gay adults to talk to queer kids about our lives to give them hope for their futures."

On the prevalence of homophobia in today's teenage world

Dan: "When I was a kid, not everybody looked at me and thought, 'Oh, he must be gay because he likes musicals and he's a fairy.' They looked at me and thought, 'Weirdo.' And now they would look at me and think, 'Faggot.' We've also had 20 years of an anti-gay hate campaign waged by the religious right where they've been telling parents who then expose their straight children to this rhetoric that 'gay people are an attack on the family, that they're trying to destroy the family.' And [parents] at the megachurch listen to this stuff and they go to the ballot box and abuse gay and lesbian abstractions with their votes. Their kids go to school on Monday and there's the queer kid or the kid who's perceived to be queer because he's gender-nonconforming in some way. And they feel they have license to attack that kid because that kid attacked them first by simply existing. That's what the religious right has injected into the culture over the past 20 years."

On paranoia in middle and high schools

Dan: "Gay people exist and there are more people aware of our existence. And in middle and high school, there's an awareness that some of us must be gay and we don't know who's gay or how you become gay. A huge part of what animates homophobia among young people is paranoia and fear of their own capacity to be gay themselves. I write [the column] 'Savage Love' and every day I get letters from 14- and 15-year-old boys, primarily, who are worried that they're gay because they don't understand how you get to be gay — how that happens. And in almost all cases, these letters are from boys who are straight — who are not gay — who are not going to be gay. But they believe that gayness is like some sort of cancer and it grows on you if you're not careful and not vigilant. Where do they get that idea that gayness is chosen?"

Excerpt: 'It Gets Better'

It  Gets  Better
Dutton Adult
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living
By Dan Savage (editor), Terry Miller (editor)
Hardcover, 352 pages
Dutton Adult
List Price: $25

One hundred videos.

That was the goal, and it seemed ambitious: one hundred videos — best-case scenario: two hundred videos — made by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.

I was sitting in a hotel room in Bloomington, Indiana, when I began to suspect that we were going to see a lot more than one hundred videos. The video that I had made with my husband, Terry, a week earlier, the very first It Gets Better video, had been live on YouTube for just a few hours when e-mails and likes and friend requests started coming in so fast that my computer crashed. The second It Gets Better video arrived within twenty-four hours. Three days later we hit one hundred videos. Before the end of the first week, we hit one thousand videos.

Terry and I were relieved to learn that we weren't the only people out there who wanted to reach out to LGBT kids in crisis.

Justin Aaberg was just fifteen when he killed himself in the summer of 2010. He came out at thirteen, and endured years of bullying at the hands of classmates in a suburban Minnesota high school. Justin hanged himself in his bedroom; his mother found his body.

Billy Lucas, also fifteen, wasn't gay-identified but he was perceived to be gay by his classmates in Greensburg, Indiana. His tormentors threatened him, called him a fag, and urged him to kill himself. Billy hanged himself in a barn on his grandmother's property in early September of 2010. His mother found his body.

Reading about Justin and Billy was emotionally crushing — I was particularly outraged to learn that "Christian" parents were blocking efforts to address the rampant anti-gay bullying at Justin's school, claiming that doing so would somehow infringe upon the "religious freedom" of their straight children — and I began to think about the problem of anti-gay bullying.

I was aware of anti-gay bullying, of course. I had been bullied in the Catholic schools my parents sent me to; my husband endured years of much more intense bullying — it's amazing he survived — at the public high school he attended; I knew that many of my LGBT friends had been bullied. But it wasn't something we talked about or dwelt on.

I was stewing in my anger about what had been done to Justin and Billy when I read this comment, left on a blog post I wrote about Billy: "My heart breaks for the pain and torment you went through, Billy Lucas. I wish I could have told you that things get better."

What a simple and powerful truth. Things get better — things have gotten better, things keep getting better — for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

I knew that to be true because things had certainly gotten better for me.

I came to fully understand that I was gay — that I had always been gay — when I was a thirteen-year-old boy being bullied at a Catholic school on the north side of Chicago. I became increasingly estranged from my parents at a time when I needed them most because I was working so hard to hide who I was from them. Five years later, I found the courage to start coming out. Coming out is a long process, not a single event, and I tested the waters by telling my eldest brother, Billy, before telling my mom or dad. Billy was supportive and it helped me decide to tell my mother, which would be the hardest thing I had yet done in my life. Because coming out in 1982 didn't just mean telling my mother that I was gay. It meant telling her that I would never get married, that I would never be a parent, that my professional life would be forever limited by my sexuality.

Eight years after coming out, I would stumble into a rewarding and unlikely career as a sex-advice columnist, of all things, and somehow leverage that into a side gig as a potty-mouthed political pundit. And fifteen years after coming out, I would adopt a son with the love of my life — the man I would marry — and, with him at my side, present my parents with a new grandchild, my siblings with a new nephew.

Things didn't just get better for me. All of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults I knew were leading rich and rewarding lives. We weren't the same people and we didn't have or want the same things — gay or straight, not everyone wants kids or marriage; people pursue happiness in different ways — but we all had so much to be thankful for, and so much to look forward to. Our lives weren't perfect; there was pain, heartbreak, and struggle. But our lives were better. Our lives were joyful.

What was to be gained by looking backward? Why dwell on the past?

There wasn't anything we could do about the bullying we had endured in school and, for too many of us, at the hands of our families. And it didn't seem like there was anything we could do about or for all the LGBT kids who were currently being bullied.

A bullied gay teenager who ends his life is saying that he can't picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain he's in now. Justin and Billy — and, as that terrible September ground on, Seth and Asher and Tyler and Raymond and Cody — couldn't see how their own lives might get better. Without gay role models to mentor and support them, without the examples our lives represent, they couldn't see how they might get from bullied gay teenager to safe and happy gay adult. And the people gay teenagers need most — their own parents — often believe that they can somehow prevent their children from growing up to be gay — or from ever coming out — by depriving them of information, resources, support, and positive role models. (Justin Aaberg's parents knew he was gay, and were supportive.)

That fall, as I thought about Justin and Billy, I reflected on how frequently I'm invited to speak at colleges and universities. I address audiences of gay and straight students, and I frequently talk about homophobia and gay rights and tolerance. But I don't get invited to speak at high schools or middle schools, the places where homophobia does the most damage. Gay kids trapped in middle and high schools would benefit from hearing from LGBT adults — lives could be saved — but very few middle or high schools would ever invite gay adults to address their student bodies. Acknowledging the existence of LGBT people, even in sex-ed curriculums, is hugely controversial. A school administrator who invited a gay adult to address an assembly before there was a crisis — before a bullied gay teenager took his own life — would quickly find herself in the crosshairs of homophobic parents and bigoted "Christian" organizations.

It couldn't happen — schools would never invite gay adults to talk to kids; we would never get permission.

I was riding a train to JFK Airport when it occurred to me that I was waiting for permission that I no longer needed. In the era of social media — in a world with YouTube and Twitter and Facebook — I could speak directly to LGBT kids right now. I didn't need permission from parents or an invitation from a school. I could look into a camera, share my story, and let LGBT kids know that it got better for me and it would get better for them too. I could give 'em hope.

But I didn't want to do it alone. I called Terry from the airport and tentatively explained my idea for a video outreach campaign. I wanted to encourage other LGBT adults to make videos for LGBT kids and post them to YouTube. I wanted to call it: The It Gets Better Project. And I wanted us to make the first video together, to talk about our lives together, to share our joy.

This was a big ask. Terry doesn't do interviews, he doesn't allow cameras in our home, he has no desire to go on television. But he said yes. My husband was the first person to recognize the power of this idea.

The second person to recognize it was our good friend Kelly O, a straight friend and a supremely talented photographer and filmmaker. She had just one question after I explained what we wanted to do: "When can we shoot it?"

We did two takes. The first was a long, depressing video that we shot against a bare wall in our dining room. It looked like a hostage video and we both talked too much about the bullying we'd endured in high school. We watched the video and shook our heads. Kids who are currently being bullied don't need to be told what bullying looks and feels like. Kelly packed up her camera and we went to a friend's bar and tried again. This time Kelly peppered us with questions: Share a happy memory. How did you two meet? What would you tell your teenage self? Are you happy to be alive?

Kelly edited the video, created a YouTube account, and called me when it was live.

Four weeks later I got a call from the White House. They wanted me to know that the President's It Gets Better video had just been uploaded to YouTube.

My computer crashed a second time.

The It Gets Better Project didn't just crash my computer. It brought the old order crashing down. By giving ourselves permission to speak directly to LGBT youth, Terry and I gave permission to all LGBT adults everywhere to speak to LGBT youth. It forced straight people — politicians, teachers, preachers, and parents — to decide whose side they were on. Were they going to come to the defense of bullied LGBT teenagers? Or were they going to remain silent and, by so doing, give aid and comfort to the young anti-gay bullies who attack LGBT children in schools and the adult anti-gay bullies at conservative "family" organizations who attack LGBT people for a living?

The culture used to offer this deal to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: You're ours to torture until you're eighteen. You will be bullied and tormented at school, at home, at church — until you're eighteen. Then, you can do what you want. You can come out, you can move away, and maybe, if the damage we've done isn't too severe, you can recover and build a life for yourself. There's just one thing you can't do after you turn eighteen: You can't talk to the kids we're still torturing, the LGBT teenagers being assaulted emotionally, physically, and spiritually in the same cities, schools, and churches you escaped from. And, if you do attempt to talk to the kids we're still torturing, we'll impugn your motives, we'll accuse you of being a pedophile or pederast, we'll claim you're trying to recruit children into "the gay lifestyle."

That it was the old order and it fell apart when the It Gets Better Project went viral. Suddenly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults all over the country — all over the world — were speaking to LGBT youth. We weren't waiting for anyone's permission anymore. We found our voices. And LGBT adults who made videos for the project weren't just talking at LGBT youth. The kids who watched videos sent e-mails, via YouTube, to the adults posting them. Thousands of LGBT adults who thought they were just going to contribute a video found themselves talking with LGBT youth, offering them not just hope but advice, insight, and something too many LGBT youth lack: the ear of a supportive adult who understands what they're going through.

Soon straight people — politicians and celebrities — were talking to LGBT youth, too, delivering the same message: It gets better, there's nothing wrong with you, and we're working to make it better. LGBT kids could see that the world was full of people like our friend Kelly — loving, supportive, progressive straight people. And as a capstone — living proof — that things were indeed getting better, Don't Ask/Don't Tell was finally repealed. Days later Joe Biden, who also made an It Gets Better video, would go on television and describe marriage equality — marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples — as an inevitability.

Things are getting better before our very eyes.

Excerpted from It Gets Better by Dan Savage and Terry Miller. Copyright 2011 by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, reprinted with permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group U.S.A.

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Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living

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