Editor’s note: For Pride Month, The Root and Jezebel are teaming up once again for JezeRoot, with content by writers of color around everyday life for LGBTQ individuals.
Recently, I went to an LGBTQ “It Gets Better” panel at a comic convention. The panelists, one of whom is a good friend, talked about how things got better once they found community. OK, that’s legit. But one of the other panelists revealed that the only time they could really be out as a transgender person was at conventions; their job wasn’t safe and their family really wasn’t safe, either.
It wasn’t the first time that the phrase “It gets better,” which was introduced into the national lexicon by writer and activist Dan Savage in 2010, struck me as odd and, quite frankly, patronizing.
Without nuance, the message seems to be that LGBTQ youths should just endure the pain of bullying because one day, everything will be made right. It reminds me of those gospel songs that worship the idea of suffering now for a reward in the hereafter.
I am here to tell LGBTQ youths that “it” doesn’t get better. I think queer youths know this because they aren’t stupid, and we need to stop treating them as if they are.
A study released in 2017 found that “It gets better” is bad advice for LGBTQ youths. The anxiety that can come from enduring abuse and bullying is, in many ways, causing more harm. If they don’t see themselves as resilient, then they are failures.
Rather than actively working to change systems and institutions that are supposed to protect LGBTQ youths, it seems we are essentially saying, “Hey, suck it up; one day it’ll get better.”
“It gets better” is simply too passive. For me, the “It gets better” narrative enables dehumanizing behavior on the part of peers (and sometimes adults) surrounding queer youths. If we want queer youths—who are five times as likely to commit suicide as their heterosexual peers—to envision a future, the LGBTQ community and allies alike have to make sure they can be free to be themselves without fear of judgment.
As a survivor of childhood sexual assault that happened as a result of my confession that I liked girls, there were days when I contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. There was no one I could talk to. I was a young, deeply closeted queer kid who often fell in love with her friends, and I tried to like boys as much as I could without reliving the sexual assault that plagued me.
It was the late ’80s in conservative Indiana, when the only queer people I heard about were gay men who were dying of AIDS-related complications. At the time, shows like Donahue and Oprah showed the vitriol that many heterosexuals aimed at gay people.
In my own household, I frequently heard expressions like, “He’s as happy as a sissy with a bag full of dicks.” And in church, the minister occasionally referred to perverts and degenerates who were “confused” enough to lay down with the same sex.
I fantasized, like many queer kids, about moving away from Indiana to New York City. The images of the city I’d gotten from Saturday Night Fever, Shaft, Breakin’ and Beat Street never featured queer people, but the city equaled freedom for me. I knew that queer people lived and loved there. I wanted to live and love there.
Of course, when I grew up, I learned the nuances of freedom, the nuances of living an “out” life. The queer community is plagued with the same issues as the community at large. Rampant racism, fat-shaming, femme antagonism, misogynoir, sexism and every other ism and bias resides in the community that many of us seek as a refuge from home lives that label us as “other.”
The othering that happens within the queer community is startling. As Pride celebrations approach, I am struck by the whiteness, cisness and maleness of it all. Still, in this time when we are a country that is more diverse, everything about most Pride celebrations is directed toward young, white, well-off, cis gay men.
And then we have the gall to tell our youths, especially youths of color, that “it gets better”?
Despite the appearance of progress with the passage of same-sex marriage laws and some protection against harassment, it is still dangerous to be queer in this country. It is still dangerous to be suspected of being queer or even to be out.
I think we need to be honest when we talk about the present and the future with queer youths. We know that bullies can and do follow queer youths all the way into their homes through computers and phone screens. It is enough to drive anyone to spiral into a dark abyss where there’s no end in sight except the ultimate one. For some of us who live in parts of the Midwest or Deep South, being queer and being out is a minefield of epic proportions.
A recent GLAAD survey revealed that more Americans are expressing discomfort with LGBTQ people. There are states in this country where being trans is a barrier to renting an apartment, getting and keeping a job or getting medical attention. Even trying to serve your country brings its own peril for trans people. Add being a person of color or a person with disabilities to this problematic institutional and systematic bias, and it’s obvious that “It gets better” is not just an empty platitude but also an outright lie.
For me as a fat, masculine-of-center, black/biracial cisgender woman, all of these parts of my identity have been attacked in adulthood. Nothing “got better” in that regard. Not magically. There is a world of work that I had to do for my life to be good, to be “better.”
I do not worship at the cult of resiliency. It’s true that our queer foremothers and fathers were survivors. We are a resilient people. But our ancestors did not just rely on the possibility of some future time when life might get better. They fought for our right to be out and proud and loud.
Trans women like Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera and many others did not take a passive approach to liberation. What these warriors did was tell us that no longer will we be beholden to systems and institutions that wish to squash our fabulousness. They showed us that for life to get better, you have to take control of it. You have to guide your own life. Nothing in this world is easy, and none of this can be done in a vacuum.
To envision a future, you have to create community; you have to be the catalyst. There is no passivity in queerness.
If you’re an LGBTQ black kid reading this, you might be asking, “OK, but how?” The first thing is to practice self-love. What you are hearing right now from family and peers is bullshit. Love yourself. You are magnificent! This isn’t easy; most of us grown folks are still struggling with self-love.
The second thing is to use your voice. You have a powerful voice. Who you are and what you say matters. You may not always be able to speak up for yourself. You may have to be silent every now and then. We all do, even us grown folks. But even in the smallest of towns, there are places where your voice can be heard. Don’t be silent when bullies are attacking you. You don’t deserve it, and it’s not OK to just take it until you can get out of the place you live. Make the people in charge do the work to make life for you better.
And the third thing is, every day, in every moment, be a futurist. I am invested in Afrofuturism because seeing a future is important to black survival and creative genius. Invest in your imagination of the future. Again, a life that is better is not an act of magic. It takes work. The best thing about being an adult is the ability to create community and family who love, protect and support you. The other great thing about being an adult is being able to say “Fuck you” to the haters.