it gets better

It’s been distressing to hear the glut of stories from the USA recently about gay teenagers who have committed suicide after a period of bullying by their peers.

Bullying is a horrendous and shattering experience, which is made so much worse when you’re a young person trying to figure out your identity.

Sex advice columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage has started a “It gets better” campaign on YouTube, where Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered (LGBT) people post video messages of encouragement to young people who are LGBT and struggling to cope.

The first one, embedded below, features Dan and his husband Terry discussing growing up as gay men and the difficulties they faced. Ultimately, for both of them it got better.

I’d recommend looking at some of the other videos to see the extent of the bullying problem for LGBT teenagers, but also to see that it does get better.

Let’s bring this issue back home to Ireland. We have a high rate of suicide in this country, one of the highest in Europe, and those at particular risk are young men. Now that we’re in recession the latest figures report a 25% increase in suicides in Ireland.

In 2009 a study called Supporting LGBT Lives: A Study of the Mental Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People was published, and of the LGBT people surveyed nearly 20% had attempted suicide at one point, and almost all saw it as related to their sexual identity and the experiences of being abused and feeling isolated. One-third of those surveyed had self-harmed at least once.

The “It gets better” campaign is a message young Irish people need to hear.

Here are some useful resources for Irish people:

  • GLEN: the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network
  • BelongTo: an organisation for LGBT young people, aged between 14 and 23

I’m becoming increasingly irritated at the trend to use the word gay as a slang term to denote something that’s stupid or ridiculous. It’s up there for me with using the word pussy to indicate that someone is a coward or helpless. If I hear either of these terms being fired about on a television show or a film I instantly lose respect for it. Sure, I’m all for people speaking in an authentic fashion. Yes, in daily life far too many people throw around these words in a casual, hurtful fashion.

Yet, they are given plenty of examples in popular culture that it’s acceptable for them to do so. This is especially true for young people who are far more likely to absorb messages about what is cool and uncool behaviour from their celebrity idols and media shows.

The use of curses and slang terms can be an opportunity for the screenwriter to interrogate the use of these phrases. It can reveal character and if used correctly show an unanticipated reaction. Instead the media has built a culture where it’s okay to throw around these expressions, because ‘that’s the way people speak’, but never accepts responsibility for the message those words carry.

Ultimately, this is just lazy writing. It’s not okay to abet a culture of disrespect for entire segments of our population.

Things get better, when we get better. When we pay attention to our use of language and the messages we are giving to the people in our schools, workplaces and communities.

Bullying happens in small and big ways, but it always starts with words. Let’s use them better.

If you want to watch a show that has successfully looked at all the subtle ways we marginalise people and has confronted this oppression head-on, all with humour (and songs), check out Glee.

It can be done, but you have to want to write it.