Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of rape and suicide.
To: Dan Savage
Writer of the “Savage Love” column, Founder of It Gets Better Project
An Open Letter
Re: It didn’t get better
Dear Dan Savage,
I think I need to begin this open letter by thanking you for any lives the It Gets Better Project has saved. This past summer, I spent some time as a youth worker at a community and resource centre for LGBTQ youth. During one evening drop-in session, one of the young people present started talking about how much he loved your videos, about the power and connection that your project can inspire. You, Dan Savage, are a powerful man. Yet as he spoke, I could not help feeling a sinking sensation of disconnection, alienation, even anger with this youth whom I served as a resource provider and confidant. For weeks, I struggled to decipher that moment – what was this feeling? Why was this feeling? Then I realized: it was jealousy, Dan, and bitterness. Jealousy of the hope he felt, which I did not. Bitterness, because I don’t believe that it gets better – not for everyone, anyway.
Three years ago, I was a confused, eighteen-year-old, Asian trans* kid in my second year of college when the original video you and your husband, Terry, made hit YouTube. It subsequently swept across Western media like the words of some gay prophet of the promised land: a paradise where gays can get married, adopt pretty children, and go on vacations skiing across mountains and strolling the starlit streets of Paris. We, queer children, can get to this heaven, you and Terry told us, if we “tough this period of it out” – if we don’t “let the bullies win” by committing suicide. If LGBTQ youth can just get through high school, you told us, things would get better.
As a community worker, for every young LGBTQ person I meet whose life will ‘get better’ like yours and Terry’s did, I see a dozen whose lives simply won’t.
At that time, the suicide attempt of my last year of high school was still a fresh scar. I only barely survived, mostly because I was too afraid of failure to complete it. Somehow, I won a scholarship to a university in a city across the country, clinging to the hope that things would get better – that I could find the promised land of a husband, a white-collar job. A year after your video was released I attempted suicide again, having been raped by white gay men several times over the course of my university experience.
I came much closer to success that second time: alone in my room, I swallowed a bottle of psychotropic medication, poisoning myself and triggering a chemically-induced bout of panic attacks, spasms, dehydration, and hallucinations. I spent some 48 hours writhing on the floor, terrified and literally out of my mind. At some point, I might have tried to go to the hospital, but I could not stand because my body was shaking too badly. No one came to help me. No one called when I didn’t show up for school or work. I remember lying there, still trembling slightly from the effects of the poison, dry-mouthed and delirious, as the sun came up, and thinking, well, it’s got to get better from here. It couldn’t possibly be worse, could it? That summer, I was raped by a white gay man yet again, this time by a friend of a friend who demanded that I serve him orange juice after penetrating me so roughly without a condom that he tore fissures in the surface of my anus, causing me to bleed for days.
So why am I telling you this, Dan? Why does my story, which admittedly is something of a killjoy, matter to the It Gets Better Project? I think it matters because I am not alone. As a community worker, for every young LGBTQ person I meet whose life will ‘get better’ like yours and Terry’s did, I see a dozen whose lives simply won’t. Toughing it out through the bullies doesn’t make poverty go away, or the foster care system less abusive, or medical services more accessible for trans* people. Getting through high school doesn’t change the fact that racism and transphobia mean trans women of colour are disproportionately sexually assaulted and forced into sex work and homelessness. Telling young people to dream big doesn’t always make it possible for them to get there.
For many of us, not only does the systemic discrimination and violence not end, but the elite few gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who do achieve wealth and power ignore and silence us.
It matters because, Dan, we really have to think about whom we are talking to and about when we spread the message that “it gets better.” Does it? For young, white and/or wealthy gay men and lesbians, surviving high school may indeed (though definitely not always) mean that the bullying ends, that fulfilling sexual lives may begin, that university and well-paying jobs can be found. For pretty much everyone else, this just isn’t true. For many of us, not only does the systemic discrimination and violence not end, but the elite few gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who do achieve wealth and power ignore and silence us – and in some cases, actively contribute to discrimination and sexual violence.
It matters because I’m not sure that the message that “it gets better” really means anything to the heterosexual, cisgender world other than that it’s up to LGBTQ folks to fend for ourselves, and they should maybe avoid actively beating us up or calling us dykes and fags.
I think that we need to make it better – we need to challenge this transphobic, homophobic, racist, ableist, classist world to wake up. We need more support and funding for queer youth centres and shelters, we need more research into the challenges of impoverished LGBTQ seniors, we need more media about queer people of colour, we need to get rid of prisons and cops who kill trans* people, and we need mental health services that understand and affirm us. We need to end street violence and gay rape culture that result in trans* femmes of colour like myself being harassed and assaulted every day.
I’m not telling you this because I want to shame you, or because I think your way of life is wrong, or because I think your work isn’t valuable to some. I’m telling you this because I survived – and while it didn’t get better, I did get stronger. But not everyone survives, and not everyone is strong in the same way. I’m telling you because I want to honour those of us who didn’t live, and because I want you to do that with me. I’m telling you because, like I said, you are a powerful man, and I am willing to bet that you don’t just want to tell young queer people to live – you want to give them something to live for. I want that too. Help me get there?
Kai Cheng Thom
From Gaysia With Love is an epistolary exploration of intersectionality by Kai Cheng Thom. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.