Some thoughts on It Gets Better

I appreciate the sentiments behind the It Gets Better project, but feel that in general it falls so short of what queer kids actually need as to be essentially irrelevant to their experience. As a queer teen, I did not need to hear that things would improve eventually if I stuck it out. I was thinking about whether tomorrow was going to be the day I got my ass kicked in school. I was thinking about how bad the verbal harassment was going to get. I was thinking about what was going to happen to my friends who were still in the closet in that technical way where everyone knew they were a couple but they couldn’t come out because of their parents so they got harassed worse than I did, because being out at least gave me the space to say “fuck you” instead of “no I’m not.” I was thinking about my friend who had to drop out of school because other kids wouldn’t tolerate how femme he was. I was thinking about whether my parents were going to scream at me again and whether they’d change their minds about not kicking me out. I was thinking about what my homeless friends were doing to get by or sometimes I was trying not to think about that or I was thinking about whether there was something I could do that I wasn’t doing. I was thinking about my friends who were getting hit on by men twice their age and how messed up it was that community stuff was still organized out of the bars but we couldn’t go in. I was thinking about how bored I was sitting through sex ed for the sixth time and learning yet again about straight people and pregnancy. I was thinking about AIDS and how fucking judgmental people get over other people getting sick and dying. I was thinking about the next town over passing legislation against queer rights.

I wasn’t thinking about my future career or my future life as a yuppie or whether my future girlfriend would be upset that she couldn’t have a church wedding or whether things would magically improve at some vague point that wasn’t even on my horizon.

I was thinking about how my teachers never did anything about the harassment they knew I was taking. I was thinking about how my parents didn’t want me to tell anyone because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by me and maybe this was just some terrible phase because the attention I was getting was so enjoyable or something. I was thinking it would be nice to know more queer people than I could name in 30 seconds. I was thinking how great it would be if my girlfriend would hold my hand in public instead of pulling away from me for fear that we’d get killed.

If some adult had told me it would get better if I just stuck it out for another few years, I would have written them off as yet another patronizing dumbass who didn’t have any idea of what I was going through. I would have wanted to ask exactly when it got better, and how to speed that up. All these videos full of bland panacea about how it will get better if I’m a good little girl who waits patiently sound like the demand that we fulfill our roles as punching bags, silent and obedient, until the magic day when things change.

I wanted an adult to actually say that the shit I was taking over who I was was bullshit and had to stop right now. I wanted a teacher to tell off one of the kids who harassed me, just one time. I would have wanted to have an adult in my life I could actually talk to, but imagining this was beyond me at that point. I just wanted some space to breathe.

I was lucky enough to live in a place where coming out young didn’t get me killed or make me homeless, and I took it as an opportunity to fight back. It doesn’t get better unless you stand up and make it better, and most of the It Gets Better videos are great for visibility but the content is sad and creepy in that way where it feels like they’re made by people who felt powerless in high school and think that can’t change, and they aren’t really involved in any kind of activism to change things now, just waiting quietly for the law to catch up to them, passively upset about not having the same privileges as their coworkers. Even for me now, 20 years later with a professional job, this makes me tune out in an instant.

Here are the two videos I like, the two I’ve found that I think succeed.

First, Kate Bornstein, who understands about how bad it can get.

Second, Hal Duncan, who understands the need to fight back.

Overall, I think for me the amazing thing about the It Gets Better project is not the message but the call to visibility. I would have loved this part of it as a queer teen and I love it now as a queer adult. However, without a more substantial message like Hal and Kate have, it’s hard for me to see the larger project as more than that.


Officer Friendly says It Gets Better

Our assimilation into the violence of the system is now complete: the San Francisco Police Department has made an It Gets Better video.

I am encountering a lot of people who think this is sweet and charming, but to me this is creepy. The traditional relationship between the cops and the larger gay community is anything but warm and fuzzy (to say nothing of how trans folks are typically treated). This is true in San Francisco as in other places. I do not expect an It Gets Better video to address the actions of the SFPD around the trial of Dan White after he murdered Harvey Milk and George Moscone, but to completely elide the long history of anti-gay police harassment and violence especially for young queer kids who may be facing homelessness seems disingenuous to the point of danger.

In my lifetime it has become much safer for gays to interact with cops, but this has occurred along predictable lines of race, gender, and class privilege. White gay men who are typically masculine and own property are much more likely to have positive interactions with police officers than homeless teens, teens of color or anyone who is gender nonconforming. Kids are often seen as delinquent if they don’t want to go home to their parents, no matter what the parents are like.

If the police really want us to believe that they have our best interests at heart, perhaps they should recognize the complexity of our situations and begin dialogue about the ways that law enforcement fails to serve queer youth and especially queer youth who are also marginalized in other ways.

Proposition 8 and the future of equality

Prop 8 was ruled unconstitutional again this week. The case is uncomfortable in a lot of ways, mostly because it should have been decided on standing (the proponents of Prop 8 should not have been deemed to be in a position to bring the case) and because the legal team’s complaint threw in a bunch of arguments that made no sense. The judges decided that it failed even the lowest level of scrutiny and that it served no purpose other than letting same-sex couples know they were second class citizens, which was already clear, thanks.

It’s always nice to see the judiciary give the smackdown to religious conservatives who want to enforce their nonsense on the rest of us, and I am sure this ruling comes as a huge relief to a lot of Californians for whom marriage means something personally or economically. This also goes for a fair number of non-Californians, although as usual with marriage issues the people I see who are most excited about it are straight and seem invested in pretending that the right to marry at the state level is the same as the right to marry at the federal level and that now, finally, they’re not participating in a system that privileges opposite-sex couples.

In the matter of killing DOMA, there is talk about this case going to the Supreme Court. I hope it doesn’t. The original complaint is poorly written and does not address the issues all that well. The California Supreme Court didn’t decide whether there was any kind of constitutional right to same-sex marriage, just that Prop 8 was invalid. It’s a narrow decision and gets the job done fine, which is pretty much what you want a Supreme Court to do.

The case I want to go to the Supreme Court is the SPLC’s case against DOMA specifically, which the Prop 8 complaint does not address. The SPLC’s plaintiffs are two women who were married in California during the period when it was legal. One of them is a veteran who has a service-connected disability. They want to ensure that if she dies, her wife will receive widow’s benefits from the VA and can be buried next to her at Arlington. The SPLC has a short statement and a video up here. This is the case I want to go to the Supreme Court. The Prop 8 lawyers, also known as the Bush v. Gore lawyers, are well known but not as good at this as the SPLC is, and the SPLC has picked a case that will arouse public sympathy especially for being so conservative – a disabled veteran who wants to be treated as an equal among other veterans so her spouse can be buried with her at Arlington? How much more conservative can you get?

The conservative nature of marriage is the major issue I have with it having become the watershed issue for gay rights. In many ways I feel that this is an issue the right wing has chosen for us because not only can they understand it and use it as a panic issue two men having sex! two men having sex! with wedding rings on! but it makes the issue of gay rights very narrow and does not address larger economic inequalities. A lot of the push for gay rights in the 1980s was focused around the AIDS crisis and the lack of available healthcare, and the goal was to get national healthcare so that people who didn’t have money could get care too. The right wing of the gay movement stepped in and said “oh but if we could get married, we could get care!” which certainly works for some people on a small scale but is not a big picture solution as not everyone in need of care is poised to marry a partner with fabulous health insurance just as soon as that pesky ban on gay marriage is lifted. Marriage equality as a solution to lack of access to healthcare is essentially “who do I have to fuck to see a doctor?” writ large.

Further, for me as someone who is against assimilation, fighting for the trappings of straight privilege rather than serious economic and social equality has always struck me as some serious bullshit. While I certainly want the same benefits as people in my economic and professional class, my vision for the future hardly ends there – I want those benefits for everyone, not just for myself and others who are similarly situated. I don’t want economic or healthcare benefits to be conditioned on being in a relationship that you file papers for at city hall, or on having one full time job rather than three part-time jobs, and I definitely don’t want people who are disabled from working or having trouble finding work to be denied care. I don’t want to reinforce a system where your best option is to marry rich.

To this end, I would like the LGBT (and I do mean T, not just the lip-service T) community and our allies to focus on something besides preserving the property rights of the upper middle class, who typically have access to lawyers and wills and whatnot. I want our focus to shift to sustaining our own community and addressing the issues of those among us who are the most vulnerable and try to tackle youth homelessness and suicide. Marriage rights may be nice but I worry a lot more about queer kids with nowhere to go than I do about upper middle class property rights. How much better off would we be as a community and a nation if when the right wing said “you can’t get married, you perverts” we’d dumped our money into shelters and programs for homeless teenagers instead of No on Prop 8 propaganda?

How great would it be to make youtube videos talking about what goes on for queer kids whose parents throw them out and scream about how the right wing is killing children?

How great would it be to respond to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” by actually making it better instead of just exhorting kids in terrible situations to hold out and hope it stops, an approach that in some ways reinforces their helplessness and the lack of resources available to them? I wish this project had been around when I was in high school – I wish the internet had been a real thing when I was in high school, for that matter – but for a seriously depressed and isolated teenager, hearing “it gets better later if you just keep taking the abuse now” seems like more bullshit that grownups say because they do not actually understand what’s happening and will not help you.

I am really happy for everyone who is excited to get married in California or feels like this is a step toward a better world – and it is a step! I want people to be able to do this if that’s what they find personally meaningful! – But that said, I hope we can turn our focus now from those among us who have the most privilege to those who are the most vulnerable, and demonstrate that community actually means something to us.