Flip The Media’s Elizabeth Hunter interviews Dan Savage to Find Out
In response to a recent spate of suicides of gay youth, Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller developed It Gets Better, a video project that has inspired tens of thousands of LGBT people to post short, positive videos to YouTube with the hope that questioning teens will view the videos and realize life can “get better”. It Gets Better has garnered over 10 million views and has drawn national media attention.
It Gets Better is just one example of digital media providing a support network for LGBT youth. Other websites like The Trevor Project, Matthew’s Place, and GLAAD provide resources, forums, and counseling to gay youth who may be living in intolerant or unequipped regions, communities, or families. Social media provides an outlet for making queer friends and straight allies, and allows organizations like the University of Washington’s Q-Center—an on-campus safe haven, resource, and activism center—to reach enormous numbers of people for rallies, petitions, and events.
The internet is so profound in queer youth lives, Savage says, that the first thing intolerant parents often do when they find out their child is gay is ban them from the internet—not only because they could find gay porn or predators, but because they realize that the internet can provide support, affirmation, and therapy.
But, like all new media before it, digital media and social networks also pose difficulties for queer youth—issues that may never be apparent to a straight person navigating the digital media revolution.
The tragic “outing” of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, in which two classmates secretly livestreamed his sexual encounter with another male, resulting in his suicide, was made possible by digital media. A Facebook page dedicated to Tyler Clementi’s memory was swarmed with anti-gay slurs soon after the family created it, prompting Facebook to intervene by erasing the comments and developing a company-sponsored resources page for kids being bullied.
In a phone interview with Flip The Media last week, Savage spoke candidly about the benefits of digital media and the effects of bullying on queer youth as a result of new digital platforms. He discussed how the closest thing LGBT youth once had to the support social media platforms now offered were phone chains. Now, there are countless websites and news outlets documenting the lives and experiences of LGBT people.
Savage pointed out that online bullying is just the latest extension of the offline harassment LGBT kids have long faced.
“They’re very familiar with 24/7 bullying. They’re bullied at school by their classmates, they get home and all too often they’re bullied by their parents, they’re brought to church on Sunday’s to be bullied by God, they’re bullied by their siblings, their neighbors—its nothing new for queer kids,” said Savage.
Savage also believes that bullying that results in physical harm, or worse, needs to be brought to the justice system, and bullies need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“Parents need to stop going to teachers and administrators and trying to handle this [bullying] inside,” he said, “They need to go to the police.”
Savage added that the UW has a role to play by requiring every freshman to take a Human Sexuality course that makes clear that bullying queer kids will not be tolerated.
Kyle Rapinan, a UW student and member of the Q-Center, has seen first hand the complexities of digital media in the lives of queer youth. Often, queer freshman come out at college and not at home. Since the Q-Center uses social media to promote their events, it must be diligent in protecting these students’ privacy. Tagging photos, for example, becomes tricky.
Rapinan says that numerous students have visited the Q-Center for advice after their parents or guardians began questioning the content on their Facebook pages. The proliferation of social networks has forced some queer youth to lead dual lives, monitoring every comment and “like” on their Facebook pages for fear of being inadvertently “outed.”
But above all, Rapinan sees digital media as a tool for better community organizing. While anonymous bullying though MySpace or on hate-filled websites is a problem, Rapinan also sees the amazing numbers that can be reached at the click of a mouse.
Thanks to advances in digital media, there is a vast number of students learning that they are not alone. Despite potential bullying and untimely “outing,” it’s clear the digital media revolution will continue to play a key role in the lives of LGBT youth.
But Rapinan wants to see work like Savage’s go even farther, “We need to make it better. We need to engage young people and also do intergenerational work, using digital media to convey diverse story lines [and] connect with young people.”