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It Gets Better for Whom?

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Posted on Mar 6, 2013
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The “It Gets Better Project” was founded by author Dan Savage, right, and his husband, Terry Miller.

By Mark O'Connell

This post first appeared on Mark O’Connell’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.

Several videos from the ubiquitous “It Gets Better” project feature famous, “top” gays guaranteeing that a better life awaits all L’s, G’s, B’s and T’s if we hold our heads high. Pop star Adam Lambert advises not to give bullies “the power to affect you, [because] you’re letting them win.” Actor Neil Patrick Harris says, “you can act with strength, you can act with courage… stand tall…be proud.” And fashion designer Michael Kors assures us that if he wasn’t “different,” he couldn’t be, um, Michael Kors. While these statements are all extremely well-intentioned, they beg the question, “for whom does it get better”? (For pop stars with a security team to ward off haters? For exceedingly famous actors who are lauded for “acting straight” and conforming to gender stereotypes? For Michael Kors?)

If it is hazy for whom the victory bell of “It Gets Better” actually tolls, the NFL has made crystal clear for whom it does not: unestablished, openly LGBT folks for one, especially those hoping to play for the NFL. After last week’s report about an NFL prospect being asked if he “liked girls” during a scouting interview, the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens player and equality advocate Brendan Ayanbadejo (whom I’ve commended elsewhere) stated, “I think players need to say that they’re straight right now…keep everything, so-called normal. And maybe later, once you’ve established yourself…maybe then players will be more comfortable to really be who they are.” The recommendation to refrain from disclosing one’s “gayness,” either by what one says or how one says it—what I call “Don’t Act, Don’t Tell”—is most disappointing coming from an athlete and public figure who has used his platform tirelessly to promote equality. But Mr. Ayanbadejo is only the messenger here, reminding us of the reality that, in many cases, before things can truly get better, queer people are expected to cover ourselves in the jersey of a “normal” and score a touchdown of obvious success. Things may get better, but first, we must “win.”

Now, this may seem to work for pop stars who don’t let the bullies “win,” actors who can “act straight,” football players who are good at lying (Manti T’eo?), and any other fortunate others whose “normal” qualities have buoyed them to great success. But what of the others, those who can’t “win”? Queer theorist Heather Love writes, “[O]ne may enter the mainstream on the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it.” What, then, is in store for those of us pegged as “losers” even by the marginalized communities to which we belong?

In his paper, “Faggot=Loser,” psychoanalyst Ken Corbett illuminates how we expel our anxieties of loss by projecting them into others, maintaining binaries of bigness and smallness, strength and weakness, winning and losing. (We might add to this list: bully and victim, straight and gay, normal and queer, established celebrity and unestablished nobody, he for whom things get better and she for whom things do not.) Using a case example, Corbett emphasizes the value of allowing loss to take effect, the power of being recognized in our loss, and of recognizing it in ourselves. Corbett finds that through a mutual recognition of loss we may begin to believe in our own recovery from it, and in our capacity to engage in a life that gets better.

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The “It Gets Better” project is a grand achievement, and the abundant and various non-famous voices on the website offer much needed empathy and recognition. But we might consider how unhelpfully easy the lucky, privileged, “normal” few can make hope sound. We might consider how easily all of us can get ahead of ourselves, and who we leave behind as a result. Must we become winners to avoid being losers, and if so, who becomes the losers? Can we instead make room for our own losses, to allow our lives, as philosopher Judith Butler proposes, to be “grievable” and, in the words of psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris, to find a way for our experience to be “narratizable, coherent, recognized, not disavowed”?

Fortunately several famous “winners” have called attention to the palpable loss in queer communities. In a speech accepting an award from the Human Rights Campaign last year, Oscar-winning actress Sally Field spoke about her gay son’s wish to be “normal” like his brothers, and how she supported him through his painful struggle to accept his differences. Similarly, in his “It Gets Better” video, out actor Zachary Quinto conveys a genuine recognition of the tragedy, despair, and hopelessness that pervades many LGBT lives, suggesting that in order to move forward we must first, as Heather Love says,“feel backward.”

There is much to be gained by sharing loss, and much that is lost by shielding ourselves with gains. When our losses are recognized we can face our own wounds in the looking glass, and become empowered to move through to the other side. We must believe that we exist as we are, before we can believe in getting better.


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