Thursday, April 21, 2011

Does It Get Better?

When I was at the education conference last week, I went to the Queer Studies SIG business meeting. It was more interesting than it sounds like it should be, because the leaders of the meeting opened it by showing some It Gets Better videos, holding a panel discussion on them, and taking questions and comments from the crowd.

The panelists pointed out many problems with these videos. For instance, a couple of people noted that the videos tend to have a white, middle-class perspective, and a higher representation of cis gay men. White middle-class cis gay men are great, of course, but they make a disproportionate number of the videos. I'm not sure why, exactly. Thoughts?

There are also some discursive contradictions in the videos. One, for instance, features two queer teachers who have their faces covered by bandannas and wrote their message on paper. They were afraid of losing their jobs. Is that a sign that it gets better?

I think we need to ask whether the bullying goes away once we leave high school. It's quite true that leaving the nightmare that is high school can make the bullies a less immediate presence in a person's life. But the video I link to above of the two teachers is a good example of how bullying can still work to keep people closeted or confined even after they become legal adults.

The anti-gay bullying is really easy to see. Check out Kobe Bryant, Exodus International, plenty of government officials and public figures, churches (and not just Westboro), the National Organization for Marriage, the Republican Party, fast food restaurants, big box retailers, and so on.

These people and institutions make it easier for kids to bully each other. Especially in the case of Kobe Bryant, whom many kids who like athletics and perhaps aspire to being professional athletes themselves have cause to admire. But they also are defending the rights of homophobes to beat up on queer people at the ballot box and in public, going to a lot of effort to make queer spaces harder to create.

So anyway, I'm not convinced that it gets better. I think people get stronger, and they, I hope, develop some ability to fight back. One of the criticisms leveled at the videos by the people on the panel was that it's much easier to feel that it gets better if you have some money and aren't facing the prospects of joblessness and an inability to have basic needs met. With such a high percentage of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ, basic needs are an issue. Life and death, folks.

I don't want to imply that everything is all doom and gloom all the time forever. I think there are ways in which we can improve our lives as we gain autonomy. Having resources and access to education certainly helps with that. And seeing the ways in which the queer community can organize to support each other is powerful. I saw a lot of that at the education conference, and it was a fantastic experience. I think it's probably easier to find other people who accept you once you're out of the psychological experiment that is K-12 schooling.

So, what are we going to do about the problems of bullying from legislators, athletic superstars, and international religious organizations? A big question, I know, but when a person's identity is constantly under assault by legions of the world's jerks, it's clear that bullying hasn't quit. It's the same phenomenon, but as adults, we have more agency.


  1. Today I was reading about sex education policy in the U.S. (and the more liberal and effective policies in nations such as the Netherlands). While I was aware that as a nation "we" (although, I think that more or less only represents a conservative cluster with money and power) advocate for abstinence-based ed sex ed, I didn't realize that federal law legislates for abstinence-based ed only, and the focus is to be that sex is only viable when in a committed, monogamous, married, heterosexual relationship. The end.

    Needless to say, this pissed me off. The institutionalized bullying of the LGBTQ community on so many fronts is appalling. Although it seems that some things may be getting better for the community, at least in terms of a presence in society and numerous support networks, it's troubling--disturbing, disgusting--that so many forces are at work to police people's identities.

  2. Desi, the current administration ended abstinence-only education last year. It has since diversified the extent of the curriculum. That being said, it doesnt really address other elements of sexuality.

  3. Right, issues of queer sexuality being discussed in a public school sex ed class... wow. That's the dream, right there, heh.

    Some things HAVE gotten better, but the facts on the ground are really messy, and I think people don't see that if they've never hung with a queer community, spoken with queer people, examined the ways that straight privilege might blind them to these issues. That's why I get so irritated when people claim they support gay marriage and are therefore allies. That's not enough. One of the most bigoted, awful, phobic people I know supports gay marriage, but thinks that trans people are insane (I wrote a post about it!).

  4. Dreamer: They didn't end the funding for ab-only ed, but they did diversify by adding funding for comprehensive programs, thankfully. As a culture, we really need to rethink our position on adolescent sexuality. In my opinion, anyway.

    Jess: I hope you don't think I meant to imply that I believe things are just-plain-better for the LGBTQ community in general. I know I'm not a member of the community, and I'm also aware that I cannot possibly understand the depth and complexity of things as a result of my privilege. At some point, I'd really love to come sit in on the class you teach to see how you discuss issues of sexuality with your students, especially since I pretty much think my dissertation work is going to allow me to engage in critical/equity issues via the medium of a literature methods class.

  5. Oh, I know you don't think that, don't sweat it. You're welcome in my class any time, though talking about issues of sexuality is something that unfurls over the course of the semester, and I don't always plan it. This semester, for instance, the biggest conversations about it happened when one of my kids just said some random homophobic thing. Teachable moments. Anyway, we can talk, for sure!

  6. I would just love to see some sort of sex education period in my own school. With so many girls getting pregnant and dropping out (5 this past year alone), and more than a couple on their second child at 17, it is disconcerting that my school has absolutely NO sexual education course of ANY kind. But we do have a 'crisis pregnancy center' right across the street. :/