In 2010, author Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller started the “It Gets Better” campaign to inspire young queer, trans, and questioning youth to know that life can get better after high school. LGBTQ people were encouraged to share stories of how they got through bullying, isolation, and thoughts about suicide, while heterosexual/cisgender allies offered messages of support. There were videos from LGBTQ celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and George Takei, as well as allies like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, and even President Barack Obama.
Initially, I really admired the campaign; I viewed it as a message of hope that queer and trans youth needed to hear. If successful LGBTQ celebrities could get through hard times, then they could too. If famous and powerful allies could vocally support queer and trans people, then maybe everyday hetero and cis allies could do the same.
At the same time, I wondered few things:
- Were the videos enough to minimize heterosexism and transphobia in the world?
- Was it fair or accurate to preach that “it gets better” when it might not get better at all?
- Did the videos address other identities (e.g., race, immigration status, social class, and others) that might make life a bit harder for these youth?
Through the years, I have tried to remain hopeful ― not just because of the progress in our country, but because I had seen many loved ones express their support for LGBTQ people. In 2014, hundreds of my Facebook friends helped my wedding pictures become among my most “liked” photos of all time. In 2015, when the Supreme Court changed the law of the land and declared marriage equality, I witnessed many friends’ profile pictures (along with 26 million others) transform into rainbows. In 2016, friends posted their outrage at homophobic politicians and the passing of anti-trans bathroom bills. And in June, many shared their profound sadness regarding the Pulse massacre in Orlando.
Despite all of this love, there simply isn’t enough evidence to guarantee that it will get better for all LGBTQ young people. In 2016 alone, 18 transgender people (mostly trans women of color) have been murdered in this country. Numerous reports indicate that LGBTQ people (especially LGBTQ people of color) are prone to violence on the streets and in their homes. Many LGBTQ youth (especially youth of color) are forced out of their homes; often turn to crime, drugs, or sex work as a means of survival; and have a higher prevalence of substance use, depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues.
On a personal level, the fact remains that my husband and I can’t even hold hands on a subway train in New York, without worrying about being stabbed. In fact, two days ago in Midtown Manhattan, we held hands for the first time in public months. And within 2 or 3 minutes, an older White woman began spouting homophobic rants at us.
We recalled the last few times we showed any public displays of affection (outside of a gay bar and on the streets). One time, as we were walking hand-in-hand in the East Village, some White men in their twenties decided to harass us with homophobic taunts. Another time, in Soho, we were with a group of straight women friends at a bar, when an older White man expressed his outrage as we danced together.
Two years ago, in the heart of Chelsea (one of New York’s many well-known gay neighborhoods), we were leaving our favorite neighborhood gay bar, holding hands, when we heard two police officers snickering and making homophobic comments. At the time, I had been a trainer for the NYPD for 7 years, and was (and still am) a tenured professor at a college specializing in criminal justice. We decided not to report the incident, because we believed nothing would be done. If I, a person who worked closely with the NYPD, didn’t have the energy (or the courage) to report such an incident, I imagine that few LGBTQ people, particularly those without resources, would either.
I write all of this because I wonder if my non-LGBTQ loved ones realize that the world is still not a safe place for LGBTQ people. I wonder if they think twice about holding their partners’ hands, or if they know that it is a privilege to be able to do so. I wonder if my friends and family can comprehend that, ever since mid-June, when I enter a gay bar, I make sure to know where all the exits are- just in case a hateful stranger with rage and insecurities decides to murder a bunch of innocent people.
To my hetero/cisgender loved ones and other allies, if you really want to help, there are a few things you can do. Please vote for people who will not advocate for my marriage to be taken away, nor will appoint Supreme Court justices who will either. Please be courageous in having tough conversations with people who are more likely to listen to you than they would to me.
Parents, please teach your kids (from an early age) that there are many sexual orientations and gender identities in the world and that each one is healthy and normal. If your kids later disclose they are queer or trans, they will know that they had your support from the start. If they end up identifying as cisgender or heterosexual, you can take pride in knowing that you raised an awesomely open-minded kid who can hopefully become an awesomely open-minded adult.
Finally, please know that I still have some hope and that I still like seeing rainbow pictures on Facebook. However, what I hope most is that those pictures are simply a symbol of the hundreds of amazing things that you have done (and are doing) to make the world a safer place for me, my husband, and our communities.