YouTube Delivers Decency?

How one online campaign may be preventing gay teens from committing suicide

by Michelle Cove
Rabbi Steven Wernick wrote an article in the Jewish Week last October called “Bullying is Antithetical to Judaism: An Open Letter to Jewish Teens and College Students” in which he stated:

When Rabbi Akiva was asked about the Torah’s most important lesson, the rabbi responded v’ahavta l’reekha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, the entire Torah is intended to teach us how to be mentschen, how to get in the habit of civility and decency in our interactions with each other; how to act on the belief that each of us is created in the divine image […]

Rabbi Wernick had excellent reason for publishing this open letter, namely the rising number of gay teens who have committed suicide in the last couple of years after being mentally and physically tormented by bullies. Teachers, counselors, therapists, and parents are trying desperately to figure out how to make gay teens feel safe and hold on to some optimism. If only there was a way to convince them that there is a whole world out there—a much better world—after the hell that is high school. If only these teens could appreciate that someday they will not be shoved into lockers, punched in the face, and told the world would be better off if they were dead.

It gets better…

That’s where syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage comes in. He came up with a way to speak to gay teens, who feel isolated and fearful, with his venture called the It Gets Better Project ( Savage made a YouTube video with his life partner Terry in which the pair talk about their own harrowing experiences of being bullied as teens, how impossibly hard it was, and then assure viewers that life does get better. Soon after it was posted, other celebrities joined in, creating their own video messages on how they got through their own rough teen years, while assuring gay youth, over and over, that “it gets better.”

Tim Gunn, who hardly mentions his personal life while mentoring fashion designers on the TV reality show Project Runway, admits on camera that he swallowed more than 100 pills in one sitting at age 17, hoping to end his life and free himself of the emotional pain that came from being gay. Chris Colfer, who plays the gay teen, Kurt, on the hugely popular TV show Glee, begs gay teens who feel hopeless to call the hotline for the Trevor Project, a national 24-hour, toll-free confidential suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth. He states, “Know that you have a friend. You are loved and you are not alone.” Comedian Kathy Griffin, who has performed in clubs around the country, assures gay teens that “even in the Bible Belt, where you think you are alone, you are NOT.”

The It Gets Better Project has turned into a worldwide movement, inspiring the creation of more than 5,000 user-created videos with over 15 million views. To date, the project has received submissions from celebrities, organizations, activists, politicians, and media personalities, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, American Idol’s Adam Lambert, actors Anne Hathaway and Colin Farrell, the Broadway community, and even the staffs of The Gap, Google, and Facebook, among many more.

Is the project working?

For those who look to metrics to judge success, these “It Gets Better” videos have, as stated above, been viewed by millions. However, we don’t exactly know who those viewers are. Are they actually the gay teens being targeted in this campaign? Are the bullies themselves watching? Or is it liberal heterosexual adults who like hearing Hollywood celebrities doing something positive in the world?

Maybe Billy Lucas, a gay 15-year-old from Indiana, would not have hanged himself last September in the family barn after years of being tormented by school bullies had he connected with any one of the many celebrities in this campaign; maybe he would have felt that he was a valued person. Or perhaps that’s naïve, and Billy would have thought, rather, “Easy for you to say; you’re not living in this hell anymore.”

Here’s what we do know: Suicide is one of the top three killers of young people. Teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. If these messages of hope—which are free for teens to watch, and accessible from the privacy of their own home as long as they have access to a computer—convince a handful of gay teens to stay alive, that is certainly enough to justify the efforts of this project.

Hopefully, the It Gets Better Project will inspire other leaders to figure out how to use social media platforms like YouTube (and Facebook and whatever social network comes next) for the greater good. The campaign is a perfect model for creating emotionally compelling content that is easy to produce—and cheap, as well, I imagine—and works mainly through word of mouth. I suspect YouTube will continue to be used as a medium that showcases embarrassing moments of people making spectacles of themselves. But how wonderful will it be if creative thinkers find more ways to use it to actually help repair the world?


About the Author

Michelle CoveMichelle Cove
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614 and the director of the feature-length documentary Seeking Happily Ever After: One generations’ struggle to redefine the fairytale ( She is also the author of the book Seeking Happily Ever After: How to navigate the ups and downs of being single without losing your mind and finding lasting love along the way (Tarcher/Penguin, 2010).

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