In a mission to take the It Gets Better Project -- his groundbreaking video collaboration series that seeks to help victims of gay bullying by spreading stories of survival -- directly from YouTube to the shelves of school libraries, sex columnist and author Dan Savage has compiled a collection of "It Gets Better" testimonials into a new book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living. Contributors range from Barack Obama and Ellen Degeneres to Chaz Bono and SF's very own Lynne Breedlove, and represent a wide and diverse range of older voices hoping their stories of getting through rough youthful periods will inspire youth to take heart and hold on. All the profits from the book, which came out this week, will benefit LGBT charities.
Savage will stop at the SFSU bookstore Friday, March 25, at noon in his cross-country college tour to promote it. He took some time to talk to us about how a book can add a special magic to the project, why LGBT adults have been frightened to reach out to queer teens, and where he sees his project in 10 years.
SFBG: The It Gets Better campaign that you and your partner Terry started has gotten over 35 million views on YouTube. Why a book? What can a book do for the campaign that a video hasn’t done so far?
Dan Savage: Having written a couple of them, books are kind of magic. They wind up places that no one can predict and no one expects. People have a way of happening upon a book at just the moment in their lives when they need to read that particular book. So it was a way to make more magic happen for the It Gets Better project. Also, it is a way for schools to demonstrate their support for LGBT students by shelving this book in their libraries, in addition to having anti-bullying programs and GSA’s. Not all students have internet access or allowed internet access. It’s a way for schools to get involved without having their students be on YouTube all day long.
SFBG: How does the book get into school libraries? Is there something the publisher or the campaign is doing to bring these books in?
DS: We are asking people to donate copies to libraries and schools, and we’re also asking school districts to purchase them.
SFBG: At the beginning of the campaign, Google expanded the It Gets Better YouTube channel to allow for 5,000 videos instead of the usual 650. Did you ask them to do that or did they reach out to you?
DS: They reached out to us. Originally, when Terry and I were working on it, we reached the limit after four days. When that happened we posted a note on the site asking people to keep making the videos, that we couldn’t post them for now, we’re going to have to create a second account. Then we heard from a Google engineer. If you go to the It Gets Better YouTube channel, it says that it got started in 2004, but that’s not true. It allowed us to post up to 5,000 videos because the longer you have the account, the more videos you are allowed to post. Now there’s a stand-alone website, ItGetsBetter.org, and that’s where the 10,000 plus videos live.
SFBG: You have a regular column, write books on the side, and then this project came along, posting the videos, reaching out to organizations and now the book. How do you have time for all of that?
DS: [Laughs] Well, a whole bunch of people came in and got involved. My friends Jake and Justin, Scott Zumwalt, Blue State Digital put together the website. It’s not just me and Terry anymore. The first couple of weeks it was really crushing. Also my boss at The Stranger where I'm the editor-in-chief, Tim Keck, has allowed me to take some time off to work on this over the last six months.
SFBG: Why did you choose to work with The Trevor Project, GLSEN and ACLU as the beneficiary organizations?
DS: What happened was that Charles at The Trevor Project gave us some good advice gave us some good advice when we were first getting started. When we first launched it, people started saying, “I don’t want to make a video, I want to send a check. I want to make a donation.” And the It Gets Better project was a YouTube account and an e-mail address, and that’s free. We didn’t need any money, so we redirected everyone who wanted to give us money to Trevor. Now, we’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for Trevor, to GLSEN and to ACLU’s LGBT project. We are actively fundraising now but we are not keeping very much of the money we raise, just enough to host our server and run the site. Those three organizations together really represent the spirit of the project, they are things that we support that are an extension of the project, we don’t need to replicate what they do. Trevor is there for kids in crisis. GLSEN is there making junior and high school environments more accepting so there are fewer kids in crisis. And the ACLU is really there for queer kids who are being discriminated against by administrators in schools. ACLU is there to kick some ass. Those three groups working together can really change things.
SFBG: When you were putting together the book, what type of stories were you looking to include? What was it about a particular video that made you say, “this needs to be in there”?
DS: The book is drawn from the first couple thousand videos. We started working on the book very shortly after the project exploded. We looked for stories that were heartfelt and moving and really showed the diversity of the LGBT experience. That was what the project was about from the start. We wanted kids who came to the site to see videos from all different kinds of LGBT adults, all races, all religious traditions, different classes, because not all LGBT kids look like me and Terry or have our backgrounds. There have been so many tremendous videos that have come in after we had gone to press that we weren’t able to include in the book, but those that we did include we wanted to resonate with LGBT kids from all walks of life.
SFBG: You mentioned you started working on the book soon after the project exploded. When was the moment when you realized, “oh shit, it’s exploded!” Was it the response from celebrities? From the White House?
DS: It was way before that. Really the most important videos in the project are by unknown LGBT adults, in my opinion. We got an indication that this was going to be big in about 24 hours. The emails started pouring in to the account. And YouTube likes and e-mail forwarding, exploding on Twitter and Facebook. And after four days when we reached 650 videos, it became clear we had touched a nerve. LGBT adults never really felt like we could talk to LGBT kids without being accused of attempting to recruit. We were sort of inhibited. And this was a way to reach out without waiting for an invitation.
SFBG: What has been preventing LGBT adults from reaching out to LGBT kids?
DS: The message to LGBT adults since Stonewall has been this: you are ours to torture until you’re 18. Then you can leave home, you can come out. You don’t have to go to church anymore. You can get out of this goddamn high school. If we haven’t destroyed you, and you can manage to survive the hell we’ve put you through, maybe you can build an adult life for yourself. The one thing you cannot do is talk to the kids we are still torturing in the same schools and small towns. And if you try to, you’re going to be accused of being a pedophile or of recruiting. That’s the charge that’s been leveled since the early 70s with Jerry Falwell. So adults gays and lesbians felt bad whenever we would hear what teenage queers were going through cause we had been through it ourselves and helpless. And even if we wanted to reach out to gay youth, where could we do it? Well we found a way.
SFBG: So we’ve been told, deal with it until you’re 18, then you can leave your shitty small town and move to a big city and be happy. Isn’t that also at the root of It Gets Better message? Isn’t it also deeply reliant on the future?
DS: Yes, we have to recognize that for some queer kids that is the best we can offer. There are kids in situations of extreme isolation, where all we can do is put the message in a bottle and throw it to the sea and give them hope for the future. And I think that’s legitimate. In the book, there are tons of essay from people who are sharing how they made it better for themselves – some people got their GED and left school early, some kids started a GSA. Not all the videos say you have to wait. In some cases, you can make it better for yourself right now. But for a kid, 15-years-old, with fundamental evangelical parents in the deep South dragged to a mega-church every Sunday, that kid can’t come out right now without risking his future. Forty percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT kids who were thrown out of the house when they were outted or came out to their families. It’s insensitive of us to suggest that all kids are in a place where they can make it better by snapping their fingers, or starting a GSA or coming out. Some kids have to go into deep cover and tough it out. And they need our love and support and advice, too.
SFBG: Most of the times, the bullies themselves are the ones in more of a crisis. Who’s reaching out to those kids?
DS: [Laughs] I don’t know and I don’t care, quite frankly. If someone wants to start a project to help with bullies’ inner torments they’re free to do so.
SFBG: Did you start the campaign in response to all the gay teen suicides?
DS: We started it after Billy Lucas’s suicide in Indiana and Justin Aaberg. Those were the two that inspired us to act. The campaign was up and running before Tyler Clementi, before Asher Brown, before Seth Walsh, before Raymond Chase, before Cody Barker. But it started with those two, and those two were too many, too heartbreaking.
SFBG: Isn’t suicide a mental health issue not necessarily a bullying issue?
DS: Of course suicide is a mental health issue, but we do know that bullying can be a trigger, an it has to be addressed. We are putting up suicide barriers on the Golden Gate bridge. The bridges don’t necessarily cause suicides. We do know that Seth Walsh, the kid in California who killed himself, his suicide note talked about the bullying he experienced in his school.
SFBG: Is the Internet making things worse, with cyberbullying possible 24/7?
DS: People have said, bullying doesn’t follow you home, home is your refuge. But for queer kids, all too often, home wasn’t a refuge. LGBT kids are often bullied by their parents, and that quadruples the rate of suicide for queer kids. I do think cyberbullying is a problem, but I don’t think that around-the-clock bullying is anything new when you’re talking about the experiences of queer kids.
SFBG: So what’s next for It Gets Better?
DS: Our goal is to preserve the website, preserve the videos. We know for a fact that the videos and the outreach have saved lives. And in ten years, kids who are four years old now, know about the website and can find their way there.