Savage relays LGBT survival stories
Dan Savage may be battling the flu, but it did not take away from his fight against homophobia and the right wing at last night's "Rutgers Responds: An Evening With Dan Savage and the ‘It Gets Better' Project."
Savage, an openly gay columnist and founder of the "It Gets Better" project, spoke before an audience of hundreds last night at the University in the Multipurpose Room of the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus.
Savage founded the YouTube-channel-turned-website with his partner last month after the suicides of several teenagers, who dealt with harassment at school, in the hopes of uplifting those who are struggling.
"One of the things we thought about when we put it together was that bullied queer kids know what it is to be bullied," he said. "We didn't want to do a video where we recounted for 10 minutes what our bullying experiences were. … We wanted to talk about our lives now and how happy we are to be alive now."
The site, which features testimonies from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults and their allies — including Bishop Gene Robinson, New York Gov. David Patterson and others — is dedicated to young members of the LGBT community. Its goal is to encourage them to live with the belief that the bullying will one day stop.
Generally, not speaking out to young members of the LGBT community was the norm, as doing so would be seen by others as trying to recruit — or as New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino said "brainwash" — the youth, he said. But new media has made reaching out to those in need possible.
"In the YouTube era, I was waiting for permission that I no longer needed," Savage said. "I could speak directly to these kids."
During the event, co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, Savage showed video clips from the YouTube channel, which ranged in content from the funny to the emotional and even a bit racy — but the message of hope was a common theme.
"When a 13 or 14-year-old queer kid kills himself or herself, what they're saying is they can't picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain they're in now," he said. "We wanted to share our joy and not just our pain."
Often, he said, LGBT youth feel they have nowhere to turn, as even those they trust most may turn against them, which makes their situations unique.
"Twenty-four-seven bullying is not a new experience for queer kids," he said. "The bullied queer kid at school also invariably goes home to parents who also bully him, and then is dragged off to church on Sunday for bullying from the pulpit."
Such environments of intolerance are bred early on in the home, he said.
"Their kids are watching mom and dad as they vote against the civil rights of gays and lesbians," he said. "Their kids are listening to this rhetoric about gays and lesbian people and bi and trans people are a threat to the family, a threat to the institution of marriage, a threat to the planet."
Growing up in such hostile environments leads the gay teen suicide rate to be four to six times higher than that of their straight counterparts, he said.
"These kids, who are steeping in this anti-gay rhetoric and this bigotry, feel they have license to abuse these queer children because of what their parents are doing and what their preachers are saying," he said. "We've seen the fruits of the religious right's war against the rights of adult gays and lesbians — dead children all over the country."
To solve the problems and save lives, Savage said the nation should stop denying there is an issue and pass legislation that addresses anti-gay bullying and includes consequences.
"An 18-year-old high school senior who walks into and beats a little old lady goes to jail," he said. "That same 18-year-old high school senior who goes into a school and beats a 13-year-old doesn't even get suspended if that 13-year-old is queer."
Savage also encouraged victims to speak out, not only to school authorities, but also to police, who can file reports.
"We're not waiting for permission anymore," he said. "We're going over the heads of [those in] authority."
Still, there were those who did not welcome Savage's presence on campus.
Social justice organization Queering the Air in a statement called the selection of Savage as a speaker a "peculiar" one, as he has exhibited insensitivity toward people of color, women and transgender people, among others.
"‘It gets better' is a seductive catchphrase. [Those] who are outside the charmed circle of heterosexuals and accepted gays and lesbians, desire social and economic justice and not platitudes," the statement said. "We get better through community building and political action that benefits all. ‘It' doesn't ‘get better' without a fight."
School of Arts and Sciences junior Tom Carr was familiar with Savage's work and expressed criticism of his use of the world "faggot."
"I don't think anyone should throw it around like that," Carr said.
Although he also did not support Savage's use of transphobic comments, Carr was still interested in hearing him speak.
"I might not always agree, but I thought it would be a good event," he said.
Jessica Rosney, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and member of Queering the Air, wondered why the University used the money and effort it could have used to address LGBT concerns to bring Savage to campus.
"I don't like Dan Savage," she said. "I used to read his column and follow his podcast, and he said some pretty dismissive and offensive things toward even members of the LGBT community and people who are not thin or don't have ‘gym bodies.'"