“It gets better,” coo the grainy YouTube videos backed by soft music — videos that have starred everyone from President Obama to Vinnie Guadagnino. “Your life may be tough right now, but out of high school…[insert sensitive attempt to relate here]…blah blah blah…it gets better.”
And yet hundreds of teens take their lives every year. One of those kids was Jack Reese, a Utah teen who took his own life last week. Add that to the list of names: Clementi, Rodemeyer, Hubley, Walsh — the list goes on. All of them have one thing in common: they were bullied, depressed and yeah, okay, they were gay.
I certainly remember that time in late 2010 when the gay suicides, as they were called, were in the news. People started paying more attention. We had pink shirts, purple shirts, “It Gets Better” videos, guest speakers, the works.
Unsurprisingly, a year and a half later, people have tuned out.
Many may have heard of Tyler Clementi, who remains in the news, or Jamey Rodemeyer, whose memory was honored by Glee heartthrob Grant Gustin two weeks ago, or Jamey Hubley, whose “It Gets Better” video and Tumblr blog went viral after news of his death.
But what of Ken Weishuhn Jr., the Iowa 14-year-old who committed suicide last month? Or Eric James Borges, who killed himself in January? Or Jeffrey Fehr, who hanged himself on New Year’s Day in Granite Bay?
And in our age, these names aren’t just small print in the paper. They’re Facebook pages, YouTube videos, Tumblr blogs. They’re animate human beings, and you can see them, hear them, dance with them and vicariously feel their pain.
“I’m tired of life, really. It’s so hard. I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore,” Hubley’s blog wrote in its last post. I remember flipping through those pages, horrified and yet unable to look away.
“It gets better,” we hear, and yet teenage suicide because of bullying remains in the news. For not as long, with fewer paying attention — it seems we’re all a little tired of those blathering, grainy YouTube videos. But it’s obvious that there is so much more to do. Two Colorado State University freshmen were beaten to a pulp last week by their football team after responding to homophobic slurs. It might be getting better, but it’s not nearly good enough.
This week people are grieving for the loss of Reese, whose suicide at 17 is cruel, unfair and unfathomable. Those still paying attention are shocked, mourn and write cute comments expressing regret on online message boards. There will undoubtedly be a plug for counseling services and a place for you to donate to Reese’s memory.
But that doesn’t make it get better. And, let’s be honest, neither do those YouTube videos. We’re past the awareness stage; if we’re serious about making it better for these kids, we’ve got to really make it happen, and that means all of us doing more than hitting record on our MacBooks.
We’re going to need to be the role models that those kids didn’t have — and I don’t mean role models that you never actually get to meet, like Gaga and Obama and Madonna.
We’re going to need to be there and stand up and be living, breathing evidence that it really does get better: gay cops, soldiers, politicians, celebrities, businessmen and professional athletes. Bullied teens don’t need to hear Kim Kardashian trying to relate to their struggles. They need someone real to show them that it really is worth sticking it out.
That means, for gay people who are privileged enough to be happy and in public life, there’s really no excuse for silence anymore.
Eric James Borges cut a YouTube video in December 2011. “You have an entire life that bursts with opportunities ahead of you,” he said into the camera. “Don’t ever give up.” He killed himself a month later.
How much longer must we wait before the successful, proud, famous and, above all, happy among us stand up and prove that it really does get better?
He’s not successful, proud or famous, but he’s happy to talk. Email Ed at edngai “at” stanford “dot” edu.