On “It Gets Better,” Briefly

Yesterday came the news that Dharun Ravi, the roommate who videotaped Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s hookup last fall immediately before Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge, is being charged with a hate crime. Those who grope, when a suicide happens, for someone to blame it on will I suppose have their closure, though as my friend Katherine wrote when I posted the news story on Facebook, “Nobody wins.” Clementi is still dead, and Ravi’s life is probably not going to go too well from now on. For this teenager, unlike (we might assume) the many LGBT teenagers who have been targeted by Dan Savage’s viral campaign in the wake of Clementi’s suicide, it will not “get better.”

Though a woefully poignant note, this seems an appropriate one on which to take a moment to reflect on what “It Gets Better” means. The immense popularity of the campaign, in which thousands of people all over the world—from these sweet older men to President Obama—have posted videos on YouTube, has led to the elevation of teen suicide as one of the causes les plus célèbres of the LGBT rights movement. It is a cause which has demanded the attention of not only the representatives of several departments of the U.S. government and the employees of several major international corporations, but also of pop stars such as Lady Gaga, whose “Born This Way” was written to be marketed as a gay anthem, and to encourage the positive-thinking, neatly-packaged Pride attitude that seems to have worked so well for the “It Gets Better” stories. When the Fox TV show Glee, which has also focused a lot of attention on what it is like to be a white gay male teenager in a school environment, premieres a 90-minute special episode written around “Born This Way” next week, it will become the latest addition to this mega-narrative promising salvation to LGBT teenagers that has responded with such commercial—as well as heartfelt—force to Tyler Clementi’s, and other young people’s, suicides.

Ostensibly, it is a narrative which offers so much hope and promise—stay alive; everything’s gonna be okay—but as the months have ticked by, my feelings about it have gotten ever more complex. My acceptance of it as something which I can both relate to and believe in has faded since I wrote my first response to Clementi’s death, and since I contributed to Princeton’s “It Gets Better” video. As I go to Holy Week services this week and get hung up on the degree to which the words, and the acts of devotion they demand, make no sense since I was raised without a promise of salvation as part of my worldview, so do I hesitate more and more to hurtle headlong for “It Gets Better.” Justification by faith is no more sensible to me whether we’re talking about how God sent his Son to die for us or whether we’re talking about a telos in which anonymous gay (yes, usually gay) kid from flyover country realizes he (yes, usually he) was “Born This Way,” and therefore has the impetus to move to a city and go to Pride and dance to Gaga at the clubs and eventually get gay-married and live happily ever after. I speak facetiously, of course, but this is not to elide the comparison between religious faith and “It Gets Better” faith. I’m getting a sense now that this is what’s been lying behind my hesitation to embrace the IGB narrative over the course of the past several months. I think I’m just not a person who has faith.

But I am not without belief, and not without causes, and not without spirituality, of a certain sort. If I am anything, I am a believer in good works, and in the quasi-Transcendentalist belief in God-as-metaphor, as a divine presence in all things that are good and virtuous that we can experience at the best of times as a shiver of pleasure. And it’s these things I think of when I think of getting better: of developing oneself to be more virtuous, and to be able to feel that shiver when confronted with beauty. My God is not externalized, in the promise of salvation nor the promise of Pride, but is something I may perceive in swift glimpses if I play my cards right, if I do my reading and practice my vocation of being a teacher. And this is something that does not happen without good works—without those of oneself and one’s daily self-fashioning, and most critically without those of the bettering influences around one, the dearest friends and most caring mentors, the families biological and adopted, and even the anonymous donor who means you get paid for doing what you love for the first time. For me, coming into this world without faith, it does nothing to believe that “it gets better” first, and then proceed from there. It is only through the daily Pilgrim’s Progress of psychological labor that I have even so much as come to appreciate the goodness of my life, how fortunate I am, how much better my life is now than it was just three years ago, and how much I now have to give that it is my duty to pass on to those whom I believe need to be told not “It Gets Better,” but how to help themselves—just as my teachers, slowly but surely, brought home to me.

Late last night, a bout of insomnia had me reflecting on what it is to be a 21-year-old Canadian-American academic brat living alone on another continent (or, well, an island in the North Sea), for whom going to work every day means going to the Bodleian Library to write about John Addington Symonds, which work is (or will be, this summer) subsidized in part by a grant because some members of her department thought what this 21-year-old Canadian-American academic brat does with her life is worth paying her for. Three years ago, when I was an 18-year-old gazing rapt at the light at the end of the long, dark, horrible tunnel of high school, and looking ahead to a summer working at the local cinema and who-knows-what to follow in September at a university I was convinced I hadn’t deserved to get into, I could never have imagined living in a room in Broad Street, writing original scholarship by sunlight in the Upper Reading Room. I could never have imagined being the one to discover Symonds’ letters to Roden Noel in the Bodleian’s English literary manuscript collections, or the one to cut the pages on nineteenth-century books no one has ever opened for a hundred years. I could never have imagined having mentees of my own. I could never have imagined having a pint at the pub with friends, or using Facebook to keep in touch with other friends on the continent I came from. I could never have imagined living in a world in which what I do, and what I value, is valued. I no longer hate myself. And if there is any evidence of bettering, surely this is it.

But I did not come to realize that my life is better because someone in a YouTube video told me; I came to realize it through dint of purpose and the gentle guidance of teachers who taught me how to read and how to write, how to love, how to teach; who took seriously what I said to them and responded in kind; and, whether eminent chaired professors or my parents, have given me guidance when I needed it. My teachers have taught me not that I will be their colleague someday, but that I am worth working towards that goal, and moreover that such a specific goal (rather like that of the gay-married coastal-city-living IGB gay, I suppose) need not define who one is or what one can contribute. My teachers have taught me that even if it doesn’t get better, we shouldn’t stop trying. And for me it’s that purpose, not the faith, that is so much worth living for.

One last thing: if things have gotten better for me, and if I remain resolved to continue my Pilgrim’s Progress, it has nothing to do with moving to a city (after all, I have nearly always lived in or near cities) or knowing the words to every song Lady Gaga has ever released (which I probably do). For me, there is no gay marriage on the horizon. And while this is in part because this narrative does not even begin to map onto my life, and its whitewashing of the queer experience strikes me as incredibly problematic, it is also because sexual orientation is not at the center of my struggle, and because my self-loathing of past years was far displaced from a closet. Gaga notwithstanding, I live in a Victorian world, before a certain Symonds set the word “homosexual” to paper, and the competing discourses with which people of all kinds struggled to express inchoate desires didn’t always cohere around sexual object choice and the mechanics of what someone then might have called “voluptuousness.” My discourse is one in which the language of passion speaks as much, if not more, to the cults of truth, of good, and of beauty as it does to the cult of the body.

And so I ask that anyone who speaks a language in common with mine feel free to reclaim the words “it gets better” from the neatly-packaged narrative that those words have been sold as. And as we labor onwards, suspecting that the Celestial City is nowhere to be found, but that we ought to keep on towards it anyway, let us please make sure that we say an atheist’s prayer for the poor lost souls of all those people who take an action like jumping off the George Washington Bridge—regardless of whether their torment was the homophobic taunts of a schoolyard bully.

… to my knowledge, nobody professes to doubt that, so far forth as we possess a power of bettering things, it is our paramount duty to use it and to train all our intellect and energy to this supreme service of our kind. Hence the pressing interest of the question, to what extent modern progress in natural knowledge… is competent to help us in the great work of helping one another?”
—T.H. Huxley

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