Note: On re-reading, I regret that this post can seem like it lapses into personal attacks instead of staying directed at the article itself. See the comments for more details.
Earlier this month, a writer named Tom McCormack posted an article titled “Milking It” on the Museum of the Moving Image’s blog. He talks about the It Gets Better project as opposed to the progressive politics of civil rights as depicted in the film Milk. I was kind of hoping that after a couple of weeks preoccupied with work and another writing assignment, I’d be able to respond to the post more objectively. That hasn’t turned out to be the case; it still just rubs me the wrong way all over.
McCormack’s main point is that the videos are a perfect example of how the civil rights movement — in particular the push for gay rights and women’s liberation — has transformed from the radical and militant views of the late 70s into a push for patience, tolerance, and feel-good statements that everything’s going to be fine if we all just work together. He fears that the videos’ attitude will let us all become complacent, convinced that we’ve done something positive when we’ve in fact done nothing to help. And he points out that the need for the videos should be a dramatic warning sign that everything’s most definitely not all right.
And that’s a valid point, and probably something that needed to be made explicit.
Where the article falls apart, though, is when McCormack starts speculating on what effect the videos are having, and starts picking targets and speculating about how much more they could be doing. Unfortunately, it all reads like a pitch-perfect parody of the Clueless Self-Absorbed Liberal. I’d think it were some kind of GOP plant if the vocabulary were less sophisticated.
I’m not entirely sure of the effect the It Gets Better videos are having on LGBT youth throughout the country. It’s conceivable, even probable, that they are doing unimaginable good, possibly literally saving lives. But I am sure of how these videos are functioning among young, liberal, educated urbanites like myself: they’re comfort food. […] they also offer a chance to momentarily step into the role of disadvantaged LGBT youths stranded in unwelcoming communities […] The liberal city-dweller is allowed a Clintonian “I feel your pain” moment, without actually having to feel any pain, and, as a bonus, is told that these kids will be just fine—when they move nearby.
Well, I hate to break it to you, Mr. Straight White Male Cinema Studies Major, but maybe these videos aren’t all about you.
Now, of course I realize that the article’s addressed to a very specific audience, those of us who are watching the videos from a safe distance instead of being directly addressed by them. But still, holy smokes! It’s astounding how quickly and callously he acknowledges that maybe the videos intended to stop suicides might actually be stopping suicides, and immediately puts focus back on what really matters: how it affects people like him.
You really can’t give it a pass, because we’re talking about a group of people who are trained to make themselves invisible, and who are told through adulthood that their problems don’t matter. Gay men and women’s desire to serve in the military isn’t as important as some vocal minority worrying they’ll get ogled in the shower. Their desire to get married isn’t as important as some well-funded church group ignoring the first amendment and complaining that their religion is under attack.
And when there’s story after story of young men committing suicide after being outed or even suspected of being gay, and a video series is created in response, what’s the reaction we keep seeing over and over again? “All kids have it bad! Man up!” “We need to put a stop to all bullying, not just for gay kids!” No matter what the issue, there’s always some moron who pipes up with “What about the straight people?” Even simply acknowledging that you’re homosexual is instantly decried as “shoving it in people’s faces” and “asking for special treatment.”
So you want to put a stop to all bullying? Fine, just do it on your own time. Don’t try to steal the attention away from gay kids who really need someone to listen to them and tell them they’re not alone. And when an article like McCormack’s effectively says, “Yes, suicide is very sad, but what about the zeitgeist?!” it trivializes the issue; it diverts attention away from people who are seriously in crisis. It’s basically doing the same thing that the article accuses us all of doing.
To illustrate the difference between 70s “radical leftism” and the modern-day “more accommodating liberalism,” McCormack uses a scene from the film Milk. In that scene, Harvey Milk receives a phone call from a kid who’s planning to commit suicide because his parents are going to send him to a hospital to “fix” his homosexuality. (And in case anyone out there hadn’t heard of this: that’s not just a 70s thing; there’s still a very vocal “ex-gay” movement and it’s still fucking horrific). In the film, Milk doesn’t tell the kid to wait it out and be confident that his life will get better. He tells the kid that there’s nothing wrong with him that needs to be fixed, and that he needs to leave home and get to the closest big city, where he’ll find people who will support him.
McCormack does concede that leaving home to live on the streets was a different prospect in the 70s than it would be today, but I’m not sure he — or the other detractors of the project — fully appreciates what the “It Gets Better” videos are trying to address. And at the risk of diverting attention away from kids who need help back to myself, I can only explain what I think the videos do and why I think they’re important.
The first thing to realize is that the recent rash of suicides and suicide attempts is not unprecedented: if the “It Gets Better” videos do nothing else, it should alert everyone how shockingly common it is for LGBT youth and young adults to try to kill themselves. As more people are coming forward in one place to tell their stories of how things got better, they’re also describing how bad things got for them, and you hear stories of attempted suicide or thoughts of suicide over and over again. According to the Trevor Project, more than a third of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth reported attempting suicide.
It’s important to understand that not all of these kids came from abusive environments. There are most definitely people growing up with terrible home lives, or subject to abuse at school or elsewhere, and they do desperately need someone to help them get out of that situation. That’s why all the videos direct viewers to the help line. But there are many stories of attempted suicides from kids who grew up in supportive environments. There are too many factors at work to blame it all on bullying or all on bad parenting.
For my part, I had just about the easiest and most boring experience possible coming out: I was already an independent adult, with a career in a very open-minded industry, with a job at a very gay-friendly company, surrounded by supportive friends, and living in the most gay-friendly area of the United States if not the world. And still, it sucked.
That’s because not all the pressure is directly external; it’s this internalized fear and loneliness that gets worse the longer you wait. I was very fortunate that I never reached the point of attempting suicide, but I spent a couple of years thinking about it constantly. If I had to describe the feeling of my lowest point to anyone, I’d say: think back on the loneliest you’ve ever felt, and then remove any sense of hope that it will ever go away. Because it’s not just a case where you’ll eventually meet someone, maybe, because everything that’s making you lonely is all your fault. (If you were reared in a religious household, add the knowledge that God wants you to feel this way, because apparently you’re weak, even if you’re not sure how or what you did wrong). And if you tell anyone about it, then you’ll lose the friends you do have.
When a person’s in that mindset of isolation and fear, the last thing he wants to hear is that his only hope is to leave his home and all of his friends and start a new life somewhere else. And it doesn’t help to give him a vague promise that he’ll meet other people who are supportive, if those people have nothing in common except for one shared trait.
Telling someone to leave — again, assuming he’s not in an abusive environment — does no good if he still hates himself and mistrusts other people in whatever his new home is. What’s needed is to be told that he’s not alone. That there are other people who’ve gone through the same stuff, or very similar. That what he’s going through is temporary. And that there’s visible, tangible proof that things can get better.
McCormack puts forward Sarah Silverman’s Message to America On Gay Suicide as an example of the direct, forceful message we should be sending out instead of giving vague promises of hope. In that video (go ahead and watch it; it’s only 30 seconds long), Silverman says that it’s hypocritical to be shocked at the rash of gay suicides and then defend homophobic policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and bans against same-sex marriage or adoption. McCormack suggests that that’s the kind of video that’s going to effect long-term change, not feel-good messages of “just ride it out and wait for it to get better.”
But here’s the thing about that video: I don’t for one second doubt Silverman’s sincerity. And her message is succinct, forceful, astute, and completely accurate. But who’s listening? Was John McCain going to say, “Now that I saw that YouTube video from the shock comic, I’ve completely changed my vote.” Was anybody who was on the fence going to watch that video, much less have their opinions changed by it? She’s preaching a valid message directly to the choir.
I can imagine what my reaction would’ve been if I’d seen that video before I came out, either as a still-in-denial teenager or even as a miserable adult. I would’ve been annoyed that some Hollywood actress was capitalizing on my personal trauma to make some political statement. What the hell does she know what I’m going through? And I like Sarah Silverman.
I saw Milk long after I’d already come out, but I can imagine what my reaction would’ve been to that, too. I would’ve said that it’s fine for what it is, but it’s a movie for other people. It’s Oscar bait. A little too didactic. And the people and situations it depicts are as alien to me as those in Avatar.
I know I would’ve had that reaction, because when I was in my early 20s I saw a movie called The Wedding Banquet that knocked me back into the closet more effectively than a dozen episodes of “The 700 Club” would’ve been able to. McCormack describes himself as a “member of a generation raised on irony and self-doubt,” and I suspect that we’re of roughly similar ages, and I dismissed The Wedding Banquet just as I would’ve dismissed Milk: movies that don’t offer me anything I can relate to, but still try way too hard to sell me on some agenda. I said, “that has nothing to do with me,” and went on believing that my “problem” must be something else.
Understand that when I say that they’re foreign to me, I’m not saying that they’re useless. No doubt there are plenty of people who were raised in very conservative Chinese families who saw themselves in The Wedding Banquet and got some measure of strength from it. And no doubt there are plenty of people who watched Milk and learned something they hadn’t known about the gay civil rights movement. And of course, it’s exactly the events depicted in Milk that meant I could have such a relatively easy time coming out. But still, none of the depictions of gay people I saw in the media ever seemed relevant to me or what I was going through.
I imagine — and this could very well be an unfair extrapolation — that McCormack wants to believe that a particular video or a particular film has the power to become a cultural touchstone, the equivalent of the “I Have a Dream” speech for those of us who were overlooked during the first “civil rights movement.” I imagine that, because I like to believe in the power of film, too. But that’s rarely how media works.
There’s no single video in the “It Gets Better” project that is The One that will help everyone who sees it. (There are a couple that come close, though). Just like I don’t believe for one second that anyone will read my own account and have everything suddenly fall into place. But while I could dismiss or mock or ignore a single message movie or a television series targeted at a particular demographic, I wouldn’t be able to ignore the same message repeated over and over again by hundreds or even thousands of different people.
And that gets to my biggest problem with McCormack’s article, in reference to the wonderful video put out by employees of Pixar:
When corporations like Pixar come out with these videos they’re praised for their bravery, but it’s just as easy to see opportunism. Suicide is just about the least polarizing of issues, so how brave to come out and take a stand against it. If Pixar is really behind the LGBT community, why don’t they come out with a video against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and in favor of legalizing gay marriage?
I have to ask: if you’re so concerned about these issues, where’s your video for same-sex marriage, Mr. McCormack? Or for that matter, the one done by the Museum of the Moving Image? How in the world could anybody, even the most egregious abuser of the “it’s someone else’s problem” defense, believe that it’s a movie company’s obligation to produce videos concerning political issues?
How is it even remotely acceptable to take a video of people sacrificing their privacy in the hope of preventing people from killing themselves, and accuse them of not doing enough?
I happen to know a little (third hand) about the making of that video, and it wasn’t some corporate-mandated public relations piece like McCormack and many others are assuming. It was a genuine attempt to contribute to the It Gets Better project, started by a couple of the employees shown in the video, which then found traction among other employees and gained the support of management. It’s a remarkable example of bravery — it would’ve been so much easier to remain silent instead of having thousands of morons on YouTube and Ain’t It Cool saying “lookit all the homos!” — and sincerity to deliver a message of hope instead of some self-serving accusation. And it just plain pisses me off to see anyone using the “I grew up in the 90s, I’m cynical!” excuse to try and tear it down.
And does anyone actually believe that a Disney-financed and Pixar-produced campaign video against proposition 8 or any other political issue would actually benefit anyone? It would instantly be seen as propaganda by both opponents and supporters alike — if anyone’s cynical enough to dismiss a video this sincere, they sure as hell are going to dismiss it if there’s even a hint of an agenda associated with it.
The video doesn’t have any direct political agenda; it is exactly what it says: a message to LGBT people who are in crisis and unable to find themselves, with the encouragement to stay strong and the reassurance that their life can get better. And even though I watched it long after I’d already come out, it was the first time I saw a video about “The Gay Experience” and found myself saying, “Yes!” and “Right!” and “That’s exactly what it’s like!” and found myself sobbing at the end because they’d gotten it so right. So if you, as a straight (or even gay) adult, are unmoved by it, then maybe that’s because it’s not for you.
One of the best things about the Pixar video is that it incorporates the main strength of the It Gets Better project as a whole: it aims for universality. (The ones from Facebook, Google, and most recently, Electronic Arts employees also do this, but of course Pixar has an unfair advantage when it comes to making movies that connect on the gut level). You’d be pretty hard pressed to watch that movie and not see someone that you can identify with. Maybe not ethnically, but in terms of background and temperament.
If you’re gay, that’s huge. “Here’s an intelligent, well-spoken person, presumably ridiculously talented, working for a great company, surrounded by supportive people, and he/she is just like me.” There may be hope for a successful life after all.
But if you’re straight, or really anyone who has limited exposure to gay people, it’s a pretty big deal, too. Not everybody in that video talks the same way, dresses the same way, or acts the same way. Aren’t all homosexuals supposed to be like they are on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “The L Word?” And they’re all accepted and they all seem pretty well-adjusted, is the weird part — not just the ones who “act straight” but the ones who are all super-gay or -lesbian too! It’s almost like some alternate reality where people are valued based on their own merits instead of one trait they happen to share!
And a huge part of the power of the video comes from the fact that they’re not politicizing, but instead sharing small, deeply personal things. McCormack acknowledges that speaking out against DADT (thankfully unnecessary at this point) or in favor of same-sex marriage wouldn’t be addressing the root problem, but he does so pessimistically:
Then again, DADT and the illegality of same-sex marriage are themselves symptoms, the legal and material base of an ideological superstructure woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness that it becomes difficult to imagine exactly when and how, big-picture-wise, things will get better.
But when talking about basic human rights—and basic human decency—a majority is basically a sorry thing to celebrate. It’s a hurdle to pass, and perhaps a landmark, but no kind of ultimate goal.
All of which ignores that fact that even if public discourse somehow shifted to being universally pro-LGBT, homophobia would almost certainly linger the way racism and sexism linger; championed by a few, unspoken but thought by many, and unconscious but internalized by most.
Yes, that’s most definitely going to be the case. The videos don’t promise that It Gets Perfect, just that it gets better. One of the hardest aspects of coming out, at least for me, was learning to accept that I will never be universally loved. It sounds either trite or egotistical, but it’s kind of a big deal: some of us are just brought up with this idea that if we work hard enough, and if we do or say the right things, and if we conform to the right standard, then we’ll give no one in the world reason to hate us.
But the thing we all have to learn is how to live our lives by our own standard instead of someone else’s. Trying to please everyone is a hopeless goal. Some people are always going to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. Some people are always going to hate us not for what we do but for who we are. The truest test of character isn’t how others value you but how you value yourself.
And when you ask a man what it is that he values, what gives him the most joy in his life, and he can name something as simple and basic as being able to walk up the steps to his apartment and hug the person he loves, then That Man Wins At Life.
Because he gets to do that every day, and no asshole screaming “faggot!” on the street, or on the internet, or in the US Senate, can take that away from him.
So when McCormack asks why Pixar hasn’t come out with a video against DADT or in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage: it’s right there embedded in your article, dude. It’s because of people like the Stonewall rioters and later Harvey Milk, that I can write about being gay on the internet and walk around the city holding hands with my boyfriend and be pretty secure in the knowledge that I won’t be arrested or beaten up or worse. And it’s because of messages like the Pixar one that more people will gradually understand what a fucking travesty it is to treat gays and lesbians like less-than-people.
I can understand being cynical or suspicious, and I can understand how easy it is to dismiss messages for being too maudlin, or too earnest, or too calculated, or too dogmatic. But when you see a guy talking about something as simple as being able to dance with his boyfriend in public, and he’s just beaming — beaming — with pure joy, I don’t understand how anyone could be suspicious or afraid of that.