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"It Gets Better": Gay teen suicides, Dan Savage, and Focus on the Family

It's one of those viral internet/news cycle things: A recent spate of suicides by gay teenage boys (or, possibly, boy who were perceived as gay and bullied accordingly) caught the public's attention. It's hard to say why, since gay teenagers killing themselves is, sadly, something that happens all the time without much notice from the larger culture. But Dan Savage, best known for his sex/advice column Savage Love, was moved to create a project around a theme he's been building for a while: It Gets Better.

The hate, the abuse, the threats and even acts of violence, the rejection from people who should love and support you: When you're thirteen, the five years that stand between you and getting out of your terrible situation can seem an impossible eternity. It doesn't help that depressed kids will often hear that the teen years are "the best years of your life," which is a bizarre but long-lived cultural meme. Dan, his partner Terry, and a growing number of celebrities want to encourage kids in that terrible place to hang in there, because it gets better. You attain legal independence, you leave your stifling little town, your can tell your family to keep a civil tongue in their collective heads or lose you forever, and you improve your life.

Criticism of the project arose almost as soon as the videos hit the internet, in large part because Savage has a touchy relationship with certain factions in the progressive movement -- spending years making gratuitous remarks about how repulsive women are can do that. One of the most surprising objections, though, is to Savage fingering religious prosecution as a large factor in the bullying of gay teens. " . . . Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious . . . are more bigoted," argues blogger femmephane.

It's true that it's unfair to make blanket assumptions about religious folks, and it's unwise to assume that only the religious are likely to bully gay teens. But well-known religious organizations aren't helping out with the feeling that to be religious is to be bigoted. A few months ago Focus on the Family was specifically objecting to school programs that targeted anti-gay bullying because, they said, it "convey[s] that homosexuality . . . should be accepted, while opposing viewpoints by conservative Christians are portrayed as bigotry." Well, gosh. Who would consider pushing a message that gay teens should not be "accepted" to be bigoted?

Anyway, Focus on the Family has decided to double down on their anti-gay teen agenda. In the face of these latest suicides, even the "pray the gay away" program Exodus has announced they'll no longer host their "Day of Truth", which tries to combat the "Day of Silence" (which was created by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network to recognize the silencing effect of anti-gay bullying) by encouraging students to wear anti-gay t-shirts and hand out anti-gay literature. Focus on the Family, however, is standing by "Day of Truth" because "Day of Silence . . . only presents one point of view." So unsporting of the GLSEN to not champion the "God hates fags" point of view along with their "support gay teens" message.

Dan Savage points out, in his indelible style, that gay teen suicides are win/win for groups like Focus on the Family. They use their bully pulpit to tell gay teens that they are immoral and sinful and the ruination of society, and then when those kids succomb to despair, religious groups use their high suicide rates to "prove" that GLBT people are sick. Says Savage: "The religious right points to the suicide rate among gay teenagers — which the religious right works so hard to drive up — as evidence that the gay lifestyle is destructive. It's like intentionally running someone down with your car and then claiming that it isn't safe to walk the streets. Which is why I argued that every gay teen suicide is a victory for the religious right."

So yes, it's acceptable to address the religious aspect of anti-gay bullying. And it's okay to tell gay teens that they can move away from those oppressive religious structures and bigotry and never look back. And for the left to be arguing against the "It Gets Better" project on the grounds that it's mean to religious bullies is . . . odd.

(To be clear, that's just one aspect of the argument, and it's grounded in populist ideas about not valuing urban, educated voices over rural, less educated voices. That's reasonable and understandable. But objecting to calling the Focus on the Families of the world out for their horrible behavior is one of the oddest things to happen in this whole conversation.)


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