Sunday, October 17, 2010

“It Gets Better”

I was amazed and moved by the video of Councilman Joel Burns’s October 12 remarks at the Fort Worth City Council meeting, broadcast in its full 12+ minutes on one of the national news channels. His words and the images he showed struck me deeply. I watched and listened, and I didn’t move a muscle. I just wept quietly, and felt deep gratitude for Councilman Burns’ courage in making that statement – and especially that he would make that statement in a place like Fort Worth, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of liberalism and tolerance. Since that video has gone viral, I expect most of you have seen it. He talks passionately about the kids who are gay – or who are perceived to be gay – and who have recently committed suicide as a result of the agony they experience.

If you haven’t already seen it, watch it here:

or click on the URL here

He told his story “for the young people who might be holding that gun tonight … or the rope … or the pill bottle.” He continues: “You need to know that the story doesn’t end …. There is so, so, so much more.” He assured them: “It gets better.”

I expect most of you know the statistics. Gay/lesbian kids have a horrific rate of suicide. The Bible-thumpers might want us to believe that high rate of suicide is a further sign of the “disordered nature” of gay/lesbian people. But I know better. And I think you do, too.

Back on September 16. I posted the piece I called “Confessions of a Junior High Idiot,” about an event in my own life during junior high school. Back in those days … now so long ago … I flirted with the idea of suicide, feeling I was utterly alone … feeling I was the only person Of That Sort. I thank God for the forces kept me clinging to life.

Friday night, NPR did a follow-up interview with Councilman Burns. You can listen to the 5-minute interview here or read the transcript here. He reported that he had received about 12,000 e-mails and hundreds of phone messages in the 24 hours after his statement – most of them in gratitude for his witness, and some from kids who were even then contemplating suicide … but who heard his words and drew back.

“It gets better.” That’s one of the simplest and most powerful things he said. For a kid who hears nothing but derision or damnation … at school … in church … maybe at home .. it may look like there is no hope. Despair may seem to be the only “logical” conclusion.

I want to add my own voice to Councilman Burns’. It does get better!

I suspect the days of public school are probably the harshest and most miserable that most of us ever face. Kids are cruel. And the more insecure they are, the more they taunt and abuse the kids who are perceived as “different” in whatever way – whether because some kid doesn’t dress “right” or some kid seems “gay” or whatever. But in my own life, I found it got easier in college … then a bit easier in graduate school … then much easier when I got into the workplace with professional colleagues in Atlanta. I was lucky in that.

But I fear it doesn’t get so much easier for a kid who lives in a hate-mongering environment and who stays in that community, perhaps moving into a blue-collar job … especially if the kid lives in the kind of place (geographically and socio-economically) where I grew up.

I wish I could agree with the Councilman that “it gets better” for all the kids as they move into adulthood. But I doubt that’s true. Every now and then, some of my high school classmates find me on Facebook and send me “friend” requests. I receive them all with anxiety. Each one of those requests sends me back to remembering what a cliqueish, racist, homophobic, classist little town I grew up in, in my little town of 5,000 people. Each time, I am tempted to respond to those casual “friend requests” with a little retort along the lines of “If you actually want to ‘friend’ the happily lesbian, liberal, inclusive, Christian, Episcopalian person I have become, then feel free to do so. If you’re still mired in the racist, classist, heterosexist, narrow-minded world in which I grew up, then forget it, for we have nothing to say to each other.” But I don’t actually say that. I generally “friend” them. And then I watch and listen for a while. Generally, I find that my old classmates are living in that small town and still mired in those same “isms” that nearly killed me, and I quietly unfriend them. They haven’t moved. They haven’t grown. They haven't changed. Even in their 50s, they hold the same views that nearly killed me in my teens. … And so I shake off the dust from my sandals and move on.

So while I generally agree with Councilman Burns that “It gets better,” I suspect that – for a great many gay/lesbian young people – it only gets better if we move out of the place that abused us. For me, that meant leaving my hometown, going 600 miles away to Dallas for college, Nashville for graduate school, then Atlanta for my first professional job.

This reminds me of what African Americans did after segregation “officially” ended. A great many left the Deep South, moving north to cities like Chicago and Detroit. They moved because it didn’t get better in the backward, small towns in which they were raised – no matter what they laws said.

I grew up in a small southern town that was – and, I believe, still is – horribly benighted, bigoted, narrow-minded, backward, and … dare I say it? … hateful. Genes being what they are, I am certain that some kids are still being born and growing up in that town who are gay/lesbian. I would like to assure those kids that “It gets better.” But I cannot give them that assurance without adding “… if you move away.” Every now and than, I have fantasies of going back there to deliver an "It gets better message." But I know I would not be welcome there.

I am grateful for Councilman Burns. But I groan when I think of the many places where it does not get better ... still does not better ... even after all these decades.


Blogger Fran said...

Oh of all the amazing videos, I think that Burns' was the best. I sat transfixed as I watched it. Just last weekend I was staying with my friends Peter and Jeff who live in LA, but who are friends with Burns and his partner, from days when they lived in Texas too.

I hope that this project and these videos are a shining sun, eliminating more and more hate and darkness.

10/17/2010 6:37 AM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, and just a thought here, as a person who moved "back to the area in which I grew up" after living in a more progressive environment for 14 years.

No doubt, when I left NE Missouri and lived in Columbia, I changed. I became less bigoted, less likely to believe the stereotypes. So when I moved back to rural life, I was a stronger person to withstand the culture of bigotry that lives in many small rural Missouri towns. That culture doesn't change unless some of us come back and say, "You know, I don't need to believe that anymore."

What I have learned with the re-acquainting of myself with my high school classmates via Facebook is this: Many of them have had life changing experiences too, by now--bad marriages, single parenthood, moving away and returning like I did, lots of things. Many no longer seem to be tied to their old cliques any more. Oh, sure, some still are. But I now see them as people who chose not to evolve, and I am not that person they knew at age 15. They can no longer harm me.

I am far less angry about that stuff than I was 35 years ago. I have more important places to put my anger. So it all works out, eventually.

10/17/2010 7:57 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I'm with you, Fran. Burns' statement is -- for me -- right up there with MLK's "I have a dream" speech. The passion ... the truth ... the hope. He knocked my socks off. While I was listening to him, I thought how I would have felt had I heard it when I was a kid. I would have changed my life. Utterly changed my life. But back then, when I was a kid when dinosaurs roamed the earth, no adult was saying anything like this.

Thank God for Joel Burns!

Very cool that you know folks who are his friends.

10/17/2010 6:22 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I hear ya, KirkE. But I wonder if we have very different stories and come-froms. I come from a town that might as well be in the Mississippi Delta. Most of my classmates who have “friended” me on Facebook turned out to be people who could be doubles for Lester Maddox. It sounds like your experience has been different.

I think you are blessed that both you and your folks in NE MO changed. I thank God both for your changes and for the voice you brought back to the region of your childhood. You are a brave and articulate woman. But the plantation culture in which I was raised does not seem to have changed one whit. From all I see, they are just as ignorant and bigoted as they were when I left in 1973.

Yes, my experiences and growth have made me stronger … as yours did. I now have the courage to tell the folks in my home that they are Neanderthals. I no longer cower.

You wrote: “What I have learned with the re-acquainting of myself with my high school classmates via Facebook is this: Many of them have had life changing experiences too, by now--bad marriages, single parenthood, moving away and returning like I did, lots of things.” That might be true of the people in my small town, too. But I guarantee they would say, with the Pharisee in next Sunday’s Gospel: “But at least I’m not a queer!”

Like you, I take comfort in the fact that they can no longer harm me. One day, I’ll become a better person and I’ll be able to view them with compassion. But I’m not there yet. Today, I still see them as the people who tried to kill my spirit … and I survived and escaped.

10/17/2010 7:01 PM  

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