Dan Savage's Message To Gay Youth: 'It Gets Better'

Last month, the suicide of Tyler Clementi — a freshman at Rutgers University — focused attention on a nationwide problem: Gay teens are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Now, a community is coming together — through home videos posted to YouTube — offering hope and encouragement to gay teens. NPR's Melissa Block talks to author and columnist Dan Savage, the man behind the project.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Last month, the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, focused attention on a nationwide problem: Gay teens are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. And studies have found a large majority of gay youth experience bullying and harassment.

Now, a community is coming together, through home videos posted to YouTube, offering hope and encouragement to gay teens.

Mr. DAN KAUFMAN(ph): Hey everyone, my name is Dan Kaufman. I'm 45 years old now, and I'm a happy guy. But when I was in high school in New Jersey, I won't lie to you. It wasn't great.

Unidentified Woman #1: My story began as I was 12 years old, and I had my first crush on a girl. I didn't know what that meant. I just thought I was crazy. I sat there, and I wanted to know why God had made me so terrible. I had been raised in a Catholic...

Unidentified Man #1: Every day, somebody would mention it. It was just a word I got used to hearing: fag, faggot, girly. You name it, they called me it.

BLOCK: Those three testimonials and well over 1,000 more are accumulating in the online video project called It Gets Better.

Unidentified Woman #2: Please remember: It will end. It will get better.

Unidentified Woman #3: So it gets better.

Unidentified Man #2: It gets better. It really does. Just make sure you stick around to find out for yourself.

BLOCK: The It Gets Better project was created by author and columnist Dan Savage. Dan, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Columnist; Creator, It Gets Better Project): Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: I had assumed that this all started after the suicide of Tyler Clementi, that Rutgers University student, but you actually had started this before that.

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah, I had heard about the suicide of Justin Aaberg in Minnesota, and then this fall, early September, Billy Lucas in Greensburg, Indiana. And it was really in reaction to Billy Lucas's suicide. And he was not openly gay, but he was perceived to be gay as, you know, many victims of anti-gay bullying are not gay.

And I was really heartbroken and had the reaction that so many gay adults have when we hear these stories, is I wish I could have talked to that kid for five minutes and been able to tell him that it gets better.

But I would never get permission to talk to these kids or an invitation to talk to high school or middle schools. And it occurred to me that I was waiting for permission that I didn't need anymore because of YouTube and Twitter and Facebook, and I could record a video with my husband. We could talk about having survived bullying and our lives now and offer these kids hope.

And really, you know, and what's subversive about it is we're making an end run around a lot of these kids' parents, who don't want them to talk to openly gay adults or know that they can lead a successful, rewarding, content and happy life as an openly gay adult, their teachers, their school administrators and their religious, quote-unquote, "leaders" who don't want us to reach out to their kids and never have.

And we're done waiting for permission or an invitation, and we're going to address these kids and talk to these kids and give them hope whether their families, churches and schools like it or not.

BLOCK: I want to listen to a story that you tell in your video where you're talking about the son, whom you adopted with your husband, Terry Miller, that your son's name is DJ. And you talk about a moment that the two of you shared in Paris.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Mr. SAVAGE: So I went out at 4 o'clock in the morning and strolled through the streets of Paris with DJ as the sun came up, and we talked. He was like five years old, four years old, and we just chatted, and we strolled around Notre Dame and the Marais. And the bakeries opened, and we went to the back door of a bakery and ordered some croissants with sugar crystals on them and got some juice. And we sat and watched the sun come up with the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. And it's one of my happiest memories as a parent, as a human.

BLOCK: And Dan Savage, I was thinking as I listened to that, you know, it's one thing to say, generically, it gets better. It's a very different thing to say specifically it gets so much better, you could be walking at sunrise through the streets of Paris with your own son.

Mr. SAVAGE: I'd like to add that, you know, my son had jet lag and was wide awake. We weren't dragging him around the streets of Paris at 4 o'clock in the morning against his will.

You know, that's one of the goals with the project and the videos is not to say everybody should want to adopt or have a life just like mine, but it is to let these kids know that the lies they've been told about what it means to be a gay adult are just that, lies. We want to let these kids know that joy and happiness is in their futures, too, if they can hang on.

BLOCK: I was really struck by a video that was submitted by a 16-year-old girl from Texas named Emily(ph). She says she's shy, and she's got braces on, and it's really striking because she's so young, and she already is saying, at 16, it gets better to these kids. She's saying you're not alone.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

EMILY: I was where you were in eighth grade, and I almost had to succumb to self-injury, and I was suicidal, as well. It was horrible. I hated middle school. But coming to high school, it's just completely opened up. I met so many great people.

BLOCK: So Emily there is saying, look, middle school was bad, awful. High school: better.

Mr. SAVAGE: That was my experience. You know, seventh and eighth grade were the worst for me, and it got a lot better for me in high school. My husband, though, got worse and worse and worse all through high school.

And in his case, as we've seen in many of the cases still today, school administrators were negligent and complacent and really contributed to the abuse.

When his parents approached the principal of the high school where my husband was very brutally abused, they blamed him because he was gay.

BLOCK: Have you actively tried to go to well-known gay figures in popular culture and say, look, could you do a video for us? We think it would really have an impact on young kids.

Mr. SAVAGE: You know, we didn't. We put the channel up, and we thought, you know, we want these to be average, everyday gays and lesbians. The first couple hundred videos were from regular people. And then the celebrities starting making videos, which is great.

You know, Tim Gunn's video in particular, Chris Colfer's video, the star of "Glee," who is only 19 and a couple years out of high school and gay himself and a victim of bullying, terrifically moving videos and would be moving if no one knew who either of those men were.

But what people need to understand, a lot of these gay kids, you know, they see Ellen, and they think, well, what are my chances of becoming Ellen? One in 300 million, literally. And if that's what it takes to be safe and happy, to be a rich and famous celebrity, what are my chances?

And what they need to see in addition to Ellen are, you know, the lesbian dairy farmers in Vermont who recorded a video, and the average, everyday people: firefighters and cops and Marines who have all recorded videos, letting them know that they don't have to be rich and famous to be happy and to have joy in their lives.

BLOCK: Dan Savage, I was reading about the horrific hate crime last week in New York, the gang torture of two teenage boys and a 30-year-old man who were attacked because they are gay. Do you worry that the message from an attack like that in New York can just overpower, overshadow everything that you put out there?

Mr. SAVAGE: No. Because the measure of, you know, whether or not it gets better is not that everybody is always everywhere forever safe from any crime or abuse. The measure is how the society and the culture responds. The nine men who have done this are in prison. So sometimes even out of the direst, most horrifying cases and circumstances, you can still see a measure of how things have improved.

BLOCK: Well, Dan Savage, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Columnist Dan Savage, along with his husband, Terry Miller, created the It Gets Better project.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible) It gets better. It gets better. It gets better.

KELLY: This is NPR News.

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