LOS ANGELES – Ten years ago from the mid summer to the early fall of 2010 a pandemic of suicide deaths affected the LGBTQI community across the United States as nearly a dozen of adolescents killed themselves. Some identifying as gay, others Trans, and others subjected to horrific bullying because those young people were ‘perceived to be gay,’ all ended their lives all too early.
On July 9, just weeks after finishing his freshman year at Anoka High School in Anoka, Minnesota, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg killed himself in his bedroom; On September 9, Billy (William) Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., was found dead in a barn at his grandmother’s home — he had hanged himself.
Tyler Clementi a student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge at the age of 18, on September 22, after his roommate broadcast live video of Clementi ‘making out’ with another male in his dorm room. Tyler had informed his parents just days prior to attending Rutgers for the first time he was gay; Seth Walsh, 13 died Sept. 27, eight days after he was found on the ground after hanging himself from a tree on Sept. 19 in Tehachapi, California. An investigation later revealed he was a victim of bullying due to his ‘expressed homosexuality.’
The roll call of death continued on with many more young people. As a result, noted Seattle, Washington-based newspaper advice columnist, LGBTQ activist, and social commentator Dan Savage and his partner now spouse Terry Miller, were determined to make a difference and attempt to prevent other LGBTQ youth from killing themselves and to, as Savage later said, ‘give these kids hope.’
Savage and Miller uploaded an eight-and-a-half minute long video to YouTube on September 21, 2010 that had a simple but direct message to any LGBTQ young people in distress- “It gets better.”
“If there are 14 and 15 and 16 year olds — 13 year olds, 12 year olds — out there watching this video, what I’d love you to take away from it is, it really is that it gets better,” Savage said.
The pair discussed the bullying and rejection they experienced as gay teens, and how life got better for them in the years after they graduated from high school. Their simple message went viral and within the days, weeks, and months that followed- hundreds and soon thousands of others uploaded their messages that life indeed did get better and a movement was born. Then U.S. President Barack Obama also contributed a video of his own as an ally.
That movement also spawned a non-profit. This week as the Los Angeles-based ‘It Gets Better Project’ turned ten-years-old, it is now home to 70,000+ video stories from LGBTQ people and their allies.
Brian Wenke, who took the helm as executive director in 2016, told NBC OUT that the organization is run by a small team of less than 10 people, but its reach includes a global affiliate network across 17 countries.
At the heart of the ‘It Gets Better Project’ is the vulnerability of its storytelling NBC Out noted.
Openly LGBTQ celebrities like such as singer Adam Lambert, actress Lavern Cox, actor Neil Patrick Harris, online social media stars like Gigi Gorgeous; and out politicos have all made videos to talk about their overcoming bullying, rejection and shame. Still, the nonprofit has struggled to find those willing to tell their most personal stories to the world Wenke told NBC Out.
In the era of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Discourse and now TikTok reaching LGBTQ youth at risk is even more challenging as ‘It Gets Better’ enters its second decade. Making the task urgent is the fact that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely than their peers to consider killing themselves- with Trans youth at a higher percentage of the overall statistic according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System team.
The greater levels of awareness and a willingness to take about mental health issues that affect LGBTQ youth however have greatly improved in the past decade Wenke told NBC Out.
“I think when you look at the early stories of the It Gets Better Project, they were very much focused on overcoming trauma, and validating experiences of young people: ‘Look, I went through the exact same thing that you did, and this is what I did to get past that and this is where I am today,’” he said. “But what you’re finding today with people who are sharing stories is that there is an acknowledgment that trauma exists, and that there is trauma in the past, but that is not the main focus of the story that’s more about ‘This is what I’m doing now, and, yes, that happened, but it doesn’t define me. It has shaped me, but I’m bigger than that.’ And there’s a focus more on positive outcomes than trauma in younger generations today, which is encouraging.”
Storytelling is also at the heart of another Los Angeles based non-profit that records the stories of LGBTQ people, which was very much inspired by the ‘It Gets Better Project.’
The brainchild of its Executive Director Charles Chan Massey and his husband Joseph Chan who serves as a Board Member and Treasurer, the Personal Stories Project documents LGBTQ people’s lives from all sectors of society around the United States and the globe. The difference though Chan-Massey told the Blade was that in addition to preserving the stories, he and his spouse wanted a way to increase donations focused on giving to LGBT-focused 501c3 organizations.
Chan-Massey related his organization’s story in a phone call Tuesday with the Blade;
“When we first started bouncing around the idea to form The Personal Stories Project in 2012, the It Gets Better Project was one of several that we looked to for ideas. I really liked what they were doing and how they focused on LGBTQ youth. We wanted to do that as well, plus serve as a resource and platform for the larger community, including our allies,” he said.
“Our initial idea was to work with folks to share their written and edited stories and be 100% social media based, with a “call to action” at the end of each story which would direct readers to a particular organization’s donation page directly, allowing them to make a contribution if they were moved to do so by the story they had just read.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize that this wasn’t necessarily the best business model to remain sustainable so we fine-tuned things a bit and once we became a 501c3 in our own right we modified the call to action asked readers to make a donation to The Personal Stories Project, a portion of which would be shared with an organization they could select from a drop-down menu, including a “fill in the blank” where they could name a charity of their choice.
“We now have 20 organizations we donate to on an annual basis including PFLAG National, several PFLAG chapters, the Trans L@tina Coalition, Stepping Stone, which is an LGBTQ-specific non-profit alcohol and drug recovery organization, GLSEN, and The Utah Pride Center, among others. Each December our board of directors determines how much we are able to donate, based on the success of the previous year’s fundraising efforts.
“As an organization we decided early on that we wanted to serve as a platform for “everyday folks” to share their stories. To that end, you’ll find stories including one about a mom from Texas who came from a religious background who shared in part that “before my beliefs could change my truth had to change” in regards to how she came to accept her two LGBTQ children; the father of a young trans girl from Montana; and a young man whose video proposal went viral, among others. Each of the stories we have shared have been “sourced,” for lack of a better way to say it, via our collective social media connections.
“Most recently, in the age of COVID-19, we have obviously had challenges shooting video stories, so in June we came up with what became a “project within a project” and shared half a month’s worth of “What’s Your Pride Story?” short written stories. All our stories, video and written, are archived on our website: https://personalstoriesproject.org/stories/.
“We live in a world where there is room for all kinds of story sharing projects, from the It Gets Better Project, to I’m From Driftwood, to The Lavendar Effect, and more. I don’t think of any of these organizations as competition, but rather as colleagues. We all have the same goal – to give people a platform to share their own personal stories to help others who may, in some way, identify with a story they might read or video they might watch,” he said.
“As for my personal goal? I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. Most days I feel like I’m on the right track to do just that.”