MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
For our parenting conversation this week, we are focusing on a difficult and painful subject that's been in the news. The suicide of Rutgers University focused national attention on the struggles of teens and young adults who are lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or just questioning their sexual orientation. Clementi committed suicide after learning that his dorm mate secretly watched his sexual encounter with another young man and tweeted about it.
Now, I offered a perspective about this yesterday in my commentary, but it's important note that Mr. Clementi's tragic death was just one of a number of recent deaths of young people who are being bullied, apparently in connection with their sexuality.
In a few minutes, we'll speak with an author and a mom who's written widely about bullying and teen decision making. But first, we want to talk to someone who's trying to get kids who are in that situation to hang on. Dan Savage is an openly gay man and writes the syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love." But after the death of a 15-year-old in Indiana, he started the It Gets Better campaign. For the It Gets Better project, he and other mostly LGBT adults have created video messages of support and advice for young people who are struggling with sexual orientation the disapproval of adults, the bullying of their peers. I'll just play you a short clip from his video.
(Soundbite of It Gets Better video)
Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Founder, It Gets Better Campaign): If there are 14 and 15 and 16-year-olds, 13-year-olds, 12-year-olds out there watching this video, what I'd love you to take away from it, really, is that it gets better. However bad it is now, it gets better. And it can get great, and it can get awesome. Your life can be amazing. But you have to tough this period of it out, and you have to live your life so that you're around for it to get amazing. And it can, and it will.
MARTIN: And Dan Savage joins us now. He's on the line with us from Chicago. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So I know I've heard you say that the death of 15-year-old Billy Lucas has inspired this, the young man in Indiana who apparently was having an awful time at school. But I have to wonder, was this a eureka moment? Or was this something that had been on your mind for a while?
Mr. SAVAGE: It had been on my mind for a while. You know, I hear from -forever, for 20 years I've been writing my sex column, and I hear - my sex advice column. And I would get letters from gay teenagers and - who are closeted or being bullied or unhappy. And often I would write them back, the email. But hearing about Judson Haberg's(ph) suicide in Minnesota, and then Billy Greenberg's suicide in - or, you know, Billy Lucas' suicide in Greenberg, I thought what so many gay adults think when we read these stories, just I wish I could have talked to that kid for five minutes and been able to tell him that it gets better.
And that's the thing that I needed to hear when I was a teenager, because I think when a 15-year-old kills himself, what he's saying - a gay kid is saying is I can't picture a life - a future for myself with any joy or happiness in it, a future for myself where my family loves and accepts me instead of also bullying me. And, you know, but turning over in my head as I read this story, sitting in JFK airport, what also is turning over is of course I can't speak to this kid. I would never be invited by the high school where this bullying is happening to come in and talk. Certainly the church that that kid was being dragged to most likely would never invite a gay or lesbian adult in to come and talk about their lives now and give hope to the gay teenagers in the congregation.
And then it occurred to me, well, why in the era of social media and YouTube and Twitter and Facebook, why am I waiting for permission? Why am I waiting for an invitation? I can record a video, put it up online and find other gay and lesbian adults who record videos and speak directly to these kids and tell them that, indeed, it does get better.
You know, the gay - the suicide rate among gay teenagers was four times higher than that of straight teenagers, and that is because the teenager who's gay or perceived to be gay is being bullied at school, is going home to more bullying from homophobic parents all to often - particularly in small towns and rural areas - and then dragged to some horrifying megachurch on Sunday for still more bullying from the pulpit.
And they really have no one, and they have no positive role models, nobody that they can look to and say: They made it. I can have a life, too. That's what the whole channel's about. And the response has been completely overwhelming. And it is not, as I feared it might be, just adults talking to each other about our great our lives are now - and hearing from thousands of teenagers who are watching these videos who are - it has a million views now on YouTube. And most heartbreakingly, and hopefully, you know, hope-inducing, I guess, of all: moms and dads who know that their teenagers, their 13, 14, 15-year-old kids for being gay or perceived to be gay are writing me to tell me that they're sitting down at the computer with their kids to watch these videos, and that it's helping.
MARTIN: You mentioned that quite a diverse group of people have submitted videos. As you mentioned, there are kids, there are parents who are parenting kids, who are, you know, of different sexual orientations, trying to kind of learn from their experiences. But, you know, I have to - there are different opinions about and I just want to play a brief clip from one of the videos from a person of color, who has kind of a bracing message that isn't maybe the one you intended.
I'll just play it and get your feedback. Here it is.
(Soundbite of video)
LUCE LOOKA 821(ph): As a gay woman of color, I just want to let the youth know that it kind of doesnt get better. Like all these straight, rich celebrities, like, I dont know, whoever, I'm not even going to name them. They can tell you that it gets better because they got money and people dont care and whatever. And like they're coming from a good place and stuff, you know, and I appreciate that, but like, I'm going to be real because I live this life and I'm not rich and I'm brown and I look like probably most of you. First of all, it doesnt get better. But what does happen is that you get stronger.
MARTIN: So that's from a video contributor who calls herself Luce Looka 821. Dan, what, you know, what about that? Is that a mixed message, or how do you feel about a message like that who says, look, maybe, you know, this is, it's not all awesome later on?
Mr. SAVAGE: No, it's not all awesome and a lot of the videos make that point, that life still has its challenges and some lives are more challenging than others. I think that that person that would even agree that whatever the challenges she faces now has as a person of color, and a person who isn't rich, and there's lots of videos from other people who are brown, like her and who are not wealthy, and most of the videos are not celebrities and not straight. The celeb videos came after we had already 300 videos up. It's not like celebrities said that this and people started jumping on the bandwagon. Average everyday regular people are doing this and then the celebrities started jumping on the bandwagon.
But I thought, you know, I watched that video and approved it and favored it for the channel and I thought that was an important message that, you know, in her opinion its still tough out there, she still encounters discrimination, it hasnt gotten, you know, quote/unquote "better," but she got better, she got stronger. And a lot of people have made that point, that the trials and tribulations of high school, young adulthood, and even some of the trials and tribulations they still encounter as adults, have made them stronger, tougher, more insightful, more compassionate people.
And even in that way, you know, I kind of thinks she's saying it doesnt get better and then, if you watch the whole video, what you walk away with at the end is, no, it did get better. It did get better for her because she got stronger and she made her life better, and I think that's an important message and one of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of message out there.
MARTIN: Dan Savage writes the syndicated sex advice column Savage Love. He also started It Gets Better, an effort to offer support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Their videos can be videoed on YouTube. And, in fact, I'd invite you to view video by one of our own, NPR's arts editor Trey Graham, who also posted a video, and a version is posted at our website at npr.org. And Dan Savage joined us by phone from Chicago.
Dan Savage, thanks so much.
Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you. And it's ItGetsBetterProject.com, and I would encourage everyone to go and watch those videos. Thank you.