Last September, syndicated columnist Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner in response to reports of two gay teenagers in the United States who committed suicide after being bullied in school. No matter how hard it might be in high school for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth, it gets better, was Savage’s message.
Just a couple months later, Savage’s It Gets Better project had turned into a worldwide movement, with celebrities, politicians, organizations and others — including U.S. President Barack Obama, Colin Farrell, Ellen DeGeneres and Facebook staff — making videos of themselves, telling LGBT youth that life does, indeed, get better.
Memorial University sociology professor Ailsa Craig, thanks to an award from Fulbright Canada, is leading a local project that takes the worldwide initiative a step further. Instead of waiting for things to get better in the future, Craig said, we can make them better now.
“(The It Gets Better campaign) is important in a whole bunch of different ways, but some people criticize it, saying it’s telling youth to just wait until you grow up and then it will get better,” Craig explained.
“Sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t get better. It’s not just a matter of hoping that things are going to improve or thinking people will grow out of their homophobia, because often they don’t, so we’ve got to do more than just hope. People are having a hard time now. We don’t have to just wait until it gets better — in fact, part of making it better later is making it better now.”
In 2000-2001, Craig was awarded a Canadian Fulbright scholarship, and spent a year studying at New York University. She was recently awarded a Community Leadership Program Award and, working with the province’s three other Fulbright alumni — MUN’s Jennifer Selby, Yolanda Wiersma and Angela Carter — is organizing an outreach and education initiative for LGBT youth in this province called Make It Better on the Rock.
Inspired by and in partnership with the San Fransisco-based Make it Better campaign, Make it Better on the Rock will consist of two day-long workshops for youth this summer, one in the St. John’s area and one in Corner Brook, in peer advocacy and issues surrounding gender and sexual diversity. The hope, Craig said, is that the participants will take what they’ve learned back to their schools and home communities, and share it.
“If we can help students put together really active and productive gay-straight alliances in their high schools, then that’s the kind of advocacy that’s going to extend into change in the future that you know will happen, because the structure and the work has been put into place,” Craig said.
In addition to the workshops, Make it Better on the Rock will produce posters and pamphlets to be distributed across the province, allowing doctors and other who have had training in gender and sexuality issues to identify themselves to youth.
“If you go into a doctor’s office and you have something you want to talk about, how do you know that’s one of the doctors who is comfortable talking about sexual diversity issues?” Craig asked. “That’s one of the things that’s been identified as being important in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
It’s not about the visibility of the person seeking the information, Craig stressed — it’s about identifying supports for them.
Planned Parenthood Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Health Centre is also a partner in Craig’s project, helping to connect organizers with youth, and helping with the workshops.
Homophobia is alive in Newfoundland and Labrador high schools the same as it is in the States, said executive director Costa Kasimos.
“What we’re hearing varies from school to school, but the things we hear from rural areas, we also hear here in St. John’s,” he said.
“There are some schools that are doing wonderful things, such as gay-strait alliances — clubs where youth can get together, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or straight, and talk about the issues — but we do acknowledge the fact that there are also schools that are the complete opposite, where discrimination is tolerated, homophobia is tolerated, teachers make homophobic remarks and students do experience violence, verbally, physically and psychologically.”
Kasimos said he is pleased that the provincial Department of Education recently established an action plan to address the issue, and is encouraged that the Make it Better on the Rock project will extend to areas of the province outside St. John’s and Corner Brook, too.
“Ailsa’s project is important because here at Planned Parenthood we’re focusing on empowering youth to become agents of change, so we feel that in order to help end homophobia, we need to start with the youth. This project will bring skills and knowledge to an area that tends to be unserved when it comes to this topic.”
Make it Better on the Rock is also working with the national association Equality for
Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) to establish an online video presence through www.mygsa.ca. Similar to It Gets Better, interested people can make their own Make it Better videos and upload them. A Make it Better on the Rock Facebook group is also in the works, Craig said, as a way to keep the project going once the workshops are complete.
“It’s about visibility and awareness of the issues, and making people more aware of the ways they become issues,” Craig said. “It’s all fine and good for people to understand that there are people who are discriminated against because they don’t identify as straight or because their gender presentation isn’t what people expect it to be, but what does it actually mean for the quality of people’s lives? What are the actual issues there? It’s not always as simple as it may seem.”