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.
In a survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute, two out of three Americans believe that gay people commit suicide at least partly because of messages coming out of churches and other places of worship. It's no secret that much of the gay backlash in the black community stems from the prejudices that church members have been conditioned to perpetuate. Places that should provide solace from intolerance are now more than ever the centers of it.
There's a peculiar irony in this, given religion's role in justifying slavery and legalized segregation. By now, black people should be well aware of how bastardized theology can be used against others. When will some of us stop repeating that mistake?
I can tell teens that they might not have to hear the word "faggot" in their adult lives as often as they do in their teenage years, but how many of us are willing to take on clergymen like Bishop Eddie Long the next time it's said that gays deserve to die?
Similarly, politicians can tell gays that things will get better, but they fail to touch on how their idea of better comes with a heavy set of limitations — as in, "It gets better, but not if you want to serve your country honestly or have your love recognized legally." When gays aren't being patronized, there are plenty of politicians — mainly Republicans, but some Democrats — ready to vilify us for the sake of winning an election.
We can't preach against bullies in the hallways if we're not denouncing the ones in the pulpit and political arena. Even on the pop-cultural front, websites like Media Take Out and Bossip routinely play off homophobia for the sake of securing hits. These banal posts may help some of you get your jollies as you try to pass your workday, but they only reinforce negative attitudes about gay people.
These are the realities that gays face each and every day. And these realities surely influence gay youths more than the advice of people (especially older people) who aren't experiencing what these kids go through all the time.
We most certainly can give those in despair the hope that their lives will get better, but it will take much more than a few cheerful words to ensure that it actually does.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.