Going Beyond ‘Better’ for Gay Youth

The "It Gets Better" campaign gives gay teens hope, but what about real change?

Group of students walking outdoors, talking and smiling

When “Savage Love” columnist Dan Savage launched “It Gets Better” — a viral campaign intended to lift the spirits of distraught gay teens and thwart additional suicide attempts — he quoted the late Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ’em hope.”

It’s a sentiment I myself espoused when I decided, after the suicide deaths of two 11-year-old boys last year, to write about my own experience with homophobic-centered bullying for The Root. At the time, I had never told my mother that I was gay. After I explained this fun fact to my thoughtful editor, she worried about whether I wanted to really go through with the piece, given the potential ostracism I might face after its publication.

Ultimately, I moved forward with my plans and finally had the conversation I had put off for far too long. It didn’t go as well as I had wanted it to, but the outpouring of e-mails I received from parents and teens made up for it. I was convinced that I gave people what they needed: hope. A year-and-a-half later, I increasingly worry whether relying on hope will be a hindrance in combating the rampant homophobia that causes grief in the lives of so many.

Indeed, hope can only go so far.

Not far enough for Joseph Jefferson, a 26-year-old gay youth activist in New York who unexpectedly took his own life on Oct. 23. On his Facebook wall, Jefferson wrote: “I could not bear the burden of living as a gay man of color in a world grown cold and hateful towards those of us who live and love differently than the so-called ‘social mainstream.’ “

All too often, gays — particularly those of color — are reminded of how much resentment toward them exists. It’s easy to grow pessimistic about the chances of one’s situation improving when so many signs suggest otherwise.