Justin's Reviews > It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living

It Gets Better by Dan Savage
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Sep 22, 2011

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bookshelves: lgbt, nonfiction, suicide
Read from September 22 to October 09, 2011

For roughly three years of my teenaged life, I was the target of anti-gay bullying. The fact that I am quite heterosexual did nothing to alleviate it; in fact, the bullies harassed my girlfriend, too, just for good measure.

Granted, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The main instigator was as cowardly as he was stupid, and he lost much of his power to intimidate when he backed out of a surprise opportunity to settle things one-on-one, outside of school (one that I was more than happy to take advantage of). But he always had a flock of his mouth-breathing buddies with him, some of whom were twice my size and seemed intent on really hurting me. Furthermore, he was consistent. If ten days had gone by without them sauntering up to me at lunch, I could reliably expect an encounter at any moment. Even though things rarely went beyond words, the constant, absolute mindlessness of the regular harassment wore on me.

Worst of all, the adults in my life seemed powerless to stop it, in some cases willfully so. After an altercation that almost got physical (I had a soda can thrown at my face, and pushed the little shit who did it away from me), I was herded into a vice-principal's office. I was solemnly warned by my school’s administration that because I threw my tormentors’ words back at them, demanding to know what it was about “faggots” that seemed to get them so hot and bothered, I could be suspended for “sexual harassment” if I did it again. My parents gave me moral support, but it was clear they weren’t going to get any help from the school, at least in an official capacity. Because I felt confident enough to handle it on my own, I didn’t want to risk making things worse by kicking it up to them until the moment I felt that I had no other choice, which thankfully never came. And even then, things almost went very bad one night, when a van full of drunk chuckleheads (one of whom I thought was a friendly acquaintance of mine) tried to trap me, my girlfriend, and her little sister in a deserted parking lot after a school dance, forcing me to almost wreck my car getting away.

It was a serendipitous combination of my own moxie and the support of friends that got me through that time, but I didn’t escape unscathed. I still carry the marks of that old rage, at peers who could be so arbitrarily cruel, and at grown men and women who were supposed to help me and instead stood by and let it happen. Even though I was more angry than despondent over it, I can easily imagine a victim of such treatment feeling like they have no escape and no hope, especially a young victim who deals with it over the course of years. Even with more publicity of bullied teens committing suicide, many people still seem to think that this isn’t a problem, or even more reprehensible, that it isn’t a problem worth caring about. It’s really sad that a book like this even needs to be written, but it does, and the inspiring essays within serve a crucial need.

This book is basically a print extension of the “It Gets Better Project,” an online compendium of short videos recorded by LGBT and straight adults that speak candidly to teens being bullied over their sexuality or perceived sexuality. The project is meant as a lifeline for kids who are considering ending their own lives, by assuring and/or reminding them that while it may not seem so at the time, high school isn’t forever. If they can endure the static that they are getting from their peers, the adults in their communities, or even from their own families, they can still grow up and create a normal, loving, happy life, just like any other person. The assertion of things actually getting better is subjective, considering how ugly people out in the world still are, but many of the contributors acknowledge this. The point isn’t to paint an unrealistic picture of a bully-free life after high school, but to give these kids a glimpse of the power that they will have over their own life, and the great things waiting for them, once they get through this comparably short period of time.

In light of that, I feel like a bad person for not giving this a perfect rating. Honestly, though, this is only a cover-to-cover read for the harried kids who really need a chorus of voices affirming that things get better, and for those who are close to one and want to help them. For everyone else, it’s more of an inspirational read, to be picked up every now and again and read in short bursts. Each essay is a couple pages long, and follows the same formula: a description of bullying, the consideration of suicide, the good things that have happened since, and an affirmation of how loved and important the reader is, and how things will eventually get better for them, too. The essays do have variety, with authors that are gay and straight, old and young, politicians and students, men, women, and transgendered. There are two pretty awesome comics, and one screed aimed at the bullies rather than the bullied. All together, though, they do follow the same formula, making them undeniably repetitive. From the standpoint of a curious reader, the website is a bit more engaging than the book.

But that takes nothing away from the point of the book. In the introduction, Savage writes that the It Gets Better project was born out of a realization that no parent or school was going to invite him to speak directly to LGBT youth, who need to hear this message the most, so he took matters into his own hands. Not every teen has access to the Internet, and many who do can’t afford to have a browsing history that will call the attention of their family on them; this book is for them. Honestly, though, speaking as a parent and as a librarian, it’s a book that every teen should at least flip open, wWhether it’s cover-to-cover or a simple skim through a couple of the essays. The sentiment behind the book is absolutely correct, and many kids and teens desperately need to hear it.
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