Getting the message out
Canadian artists rally to create a homegrown version of It Gets Better
"You are not alone," sings Cinderella in Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. "No one is alone." Those words could sum up succinctly the message being sent by a huge community of artists, politicians and ordinary folks to queer teenagers, via Dan Savage's phenomenal It Gets Better project.
Since its launch in the U.S. in late September, the online initiative has posted more than 3,000 video messages directed at teens in the wake of a rash of suicides linked to homophobic bullying. Contributors have ranged from pop singer Adam Lambert to U.S. President Barack Obama, and now a raft of prominent gay and lesbian Canadians are adding their voices to the growing chorus of reassurance.
Comedian Rick Mercer, author Ann-Marie MacDonald and director Alisa Palmer, Olympic gold medallist Mark Tewksbury, playwright Brad Fraser and dancer Rex Harrington are among the close to 30 celebrities who’ve taken part in It Gets Better Canada, a half-hour video to be launched Nov. 2. Like their U.S. counterparts, their aim is to let queer teens know that they can survive the bullying — and that life on the other side of adolescence can be wonderful.
Also like the U.S. project, the Canadian version came together fast, with a sense of burning urgency. Its organizers, journalist Arren Williams and HGTV host Tommy Smythe, got the idea on Oct. 2 and by the next day, they’d already lined up several of the participants. "We wanted to get the message out as soon as possible," Smythe says.
Like Savage, Ellen DeGeneres and others in the media, Smythe and Williams were galvanized by last month’s shocking string of suicides by bullied gay teens in the U.S. They ranged in age from 18-year-old New Jersey university student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge, to 13-year-old Texas middle-schooler Asher Brown, who shot himself in the head.
"We lived in a Will & Grace world thinking that everything was fine," Smythe says. "And then we started hearing in September that our kids were killing themselves, and we knew we had to do something about it."
Dan Savage set the template when he posted a YouTube response to the death of Billy Lucas, a bullied Indiana youth who hanged himself on Sept. 9. The popular Seattle sex-advice columnist and his husband, Terry Miller, taped a candid eight-minute video in which they discussed their own experiences being harassed as gay teens, as well as their current happy and successful lives.
That video touched off an explosion of catharsis that, even in the online age of indiscriminate self-revelation, is remarkable. Contributors to the It Gets Better project have been astoundingly forthcoming. Tim Gunn, the suave mentor of TV’s Project Runway, describes how, as a despairing 17-year-old, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of pills. Actor B.D. Wong delivers a touchingly intimate account of his struggles to accept his sexual orientation. Perhaps the most emotional video features Joel Burns, a city councillor in Fort Worth, Tex., who used a civic meeting to tearfully reveal the tortures he went through as a gay adolescent.
Williams says the Canadian contributors have been equally upfront. "Many of the people we’ve filmed have maybe never even spoken to people close to them about these experiences – let alone spoken directly to a camera about them," he says. "It’s very powerful stuff."
As well as bullying, the participants also address the other agonies that queer teenagers face. Alisa Palmer, who grew up in New Brunswick in the 1980s, recalls the torments of being forced to keep her sexuality in the closet. "There was a lot of self-loathing, confusion and self-destructive behaviour," says the Toronto-based theatre director, who is now happily married to MacDonald. "My mother was very explicit: Don’t reveal anything, just lay low, be quiet, you don’t want to get hurt. So what are you supposed to do with that message?"
Even before Williams and Smythe’s project, Canadians were creating their own It Gets Better videos. At Carleton University in Ottawa, Rob Nettleton and Melanie Rickert set up a camera on campus, did a call-out on Facebook and invited fellow students to offer their messages. The end result is like a giant group hug.
"I went to a school where I was – from what I knew – the only gay student there," recalls the 22-year-old Nettleton, who grew up in small-town Ontario. "So I was the only student who was bullied for being gay and I always felt alone." He says the It Gets Better videos "offer that kind of reassurance of – you know what? – we’ve all gone through it, it’s so worth it to stick it out and don’t worry, you’re not alone."
But some have criticized the It Gets Better message itself as naïve or simplistic. Polaris Prize-winning Canadian musician Owen Pallett noted recently that he wouldn’t be part of the project because his own adolescent trauma was due more to clinical depression than homophobia: "I’m just saying that when it comes to depression ‘it doesn’t get better.’"
Others are irked by the glibness of some of the videos. Although he’s part of the Canadian IGB project, Brad Fraser questions the sincerity of a few of the U.S.participants, including Obama. He calls the president's message hypocritical, given his government’s recent appeal of a ruling lifting the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. (Savage has also raised that issue.)
But Fraser thinks the video onslaught is ultimately a good thing. "The more regular, non-celeb and celeb folks they see talking about their lives, the more role models young queers have," says the 51-year-old playwright. "I remember how important that was to me."
Palmer says the project actually reflects how far society has come in accepting different sexual orientations. "The voices of It Gets Better are far more in the mainstream than they ever would have been before," she says. "Before, we would have seen these suicides and then shut up and prayed that no one finds out about us. Now we just shout back."
Those involved in It Gets Better are already looking to take the crusade a step further. Savage is using the U.S. site to raise funds for The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for queer youth, and GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Williams says he and Smythe are hoping to turn the Canadian IGB video into a DVD to be used as a teaching aid in schools. "That’s one of the reasons we were gunning to get as many high-profile people as we could."
If there’s a downside to the It Gets Better projects, it’s that the public may begin to suffer from positive-message fatigue. But the attitude is that, if it can save even one teenage life, it’s worth it. Says Williams: "We’d love to get to the point where we don’t have to say this."
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.