“It Gets Better” and “The Letter Q”: Two books every queer youth should read

 
 

Last week, the Human Rights Campaign released a remarkable and extensive survey of over 10,000 LGBT teens between the ages of 13-17 about growing up gay in America. The results included some of the doom and gloom we’re all well aware of: LGBT youth are more than twice as likely as their straight peers to be harassed, both verbally and physically, at school; more than twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Almost all of them hear negative messages about queer people.

There were also some quite promising statistics in their report, such as 91% of LGBT youth saying they are out to their close friends. 91%! (The percentage for being out to their family, in comparison, was just over 50%.) Friends: they are everything. And then there was the fact that 77% of the LGBT youth surveyed said they do believe things will get better. Over three-quarters! Hurrah! Yet, those 23% who are left over are still going to struggle with thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Tragically, this is only affirmed by the suicide of yet another gay teen this past week in Texas. Thinking about those 23% still wrecks me. And even while a majority are able to hold on to that belief of things getting better, only a third of the youth surveyed said they had an adult in their lives they felt they could talk honestly to. Dear adults of the world: that is sad.

Look at the report! It is fascinating. And then when you are full of despair and wondering how you can help, you can read these two books: the It Gets Better book, edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, and Scholastic’s The Letter Q

I have to say that after reading these books back to back, I was so chock full of optimism that I almost felt what can only be described as optimism fatigue. Which is probably the most annoying thing in the world to complain about. So instead of complaining, I’m just going to share some of it with you.

It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, Plume/Penguin 2011

While I know some members of the lesbian community have issues with Dan Savage, when it comes to this project, none of that should matter. Skip his introduction in this book if you want. Although I’m not sorry to admit when I read those first few pages about how much this project means to him, how overwhelming the response to it was, there were tears, big fat ones, streaming down my face.

Once I collected my wits after the introduction, I was all excited to read these new essays, until I realized that most of the essays in here aren’t new — they’re simply transcriptions of It Gets Better videos. Although when I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Hey, these are all just from the videos!,” she gave me a look and said, “Yeah?” So, maybe it was just me. However, there are quite a few original essays in here in addition to video transcriptions; so, never fear.

And in any case, I quickly realized that even if it was just all video transcriptions, this book would still be valuable. While the It Gets Better videos are all intensely moving, there is something about holding a book in your hand and reading words on a page. Your mind goes to a quiet, private space, a place that you own; the words take on more depth; you can read them however many times you want; you can digest them however slowly you’d like. You can highlight and underline and star and earmark the page. And even better, you don’t have to worry about nasty YouTube comments bringing you down! When words are encapsulated on paper, you can hold them close to your heart and keep them there, for you and only you, forever. 

While every essay in here is helpful and worthwhile, the optimism fatigue in me wants to suggest that the best way to read this book — perhaps both of these books — is in spurts. Read an essay here and there, pick it up later, read a few more. The best thing about these essays, from the teacher-in-me perspective, is that they are really short. You can read a few different ones in five minutes; teachers, you can photocopy one on a single page and you won’t have to beg and plead with your kids to read it. But when I read the whole thing at once, after reading about how, guess what, IT’LL GET BETTER!, over and over again, the essays started to blend together in droopy sad blobs in my mind, lacking the punch and meaning that they all actually hold. 

Accordingly, the ones that stood out to me were the ones that said something slightly different. In fact, I think my favorite essay in the whole book might have been from Gabrielle Rivera from the Bronx, who maintained that of course, straight, rich celebrities have the privilege to tell you it’ll get better. “And I appreciate that, but I’m gonna be real, because I live this life and I’m not rich and I’m brown and I probably look like most of you. First of all, it doesn’t get better but what does happen is this: You get stronger.” [Emphasis mine.] Word, Gabrielle. Word. 

Or, after reading for the umpteenth time that things will most certainly get better when you get to move to a big city, I couldn’t help but crack a huge smile when Krissy Mahan said that she’s “been really happy being a big rural dyke. So, if you want to live in the country, or just can’t move away, you’ll be fine.” 

And perhaps the most important essay, to me, was by Joseph Odysseus Mastro, a straight former bully, or as he explains it: “I was relatively popular, and pretty much a jerk.” He goes on to explain how after graduating from high school, he volunteered with a gay men’s HIV center in the Castro in San Francisco, met a lot of wonderful gay friends, and became an un-jerk. 

Deeming this the most important essay in a book full of important essays is a purely personal imperative, and you might disagree with me. I fear we lump bullies into this category of “evil” too easily, because many of the things they do are evil, and some of them will never change. Yet it’s much easier to say people are evil than it is to understand them. I don’t want to defend the actions of bullies, nor do I want to reduce it to simple terms of “Look, the bullies have issues, too!” (Not that that isn’t often true.) These are of course much bigger issues for another discussion. What I will say is that reading condemnations of the bullies and the jerks page after page in both of these books, while justified and sometimes satisfying, still almost gave me hatred fatigue, and I would have been just fine sticking with optimism fatigue. So reading essays like Mastro’s was almost startling, and entirely refreshing.

To differentiate between the 100+ essays included in the book, I also started playing a game with myself called Pick The Best Essay Titles! The winners included: “I Was a Teenage Lesbian” by Alison Bechdel, “You Will Meet People Who Celebrate You” by Jenn and Erika Wagner-Martin, “Haters Can’t Hate Someone Who Loves Themselves, and if They Do, Who Cares” by Lynn Breedlove, “To Me: With Love and Squalor” by Terry Galloway (squalor is such an excellent word!), “I Wish I’d Been Sassier!” by Brian Gallivan, and my favorite, “You Are a Rubber Band, My Friend” by Brinae Lois Gaudet. See? That’s only six essay titles, and don’t you feel more optimistic about life already?

”Drop Dead, Warlock” by the incomparable David Sedaris is also, not surprisingly, a pretty wonderful title. I don’t know how you do it, Mr. Sedaris, but in less than two short pages, you express more charm and truth than most people ever can. I like you, a lot.

I also need to give a small shout out to Ellen Forney’s illustrated piece, “High School Survival Tools,” which is pretty much brilliant in its simplicity. In basic graphics, it lists recommendations for books to read, music to listen to, hobbies to take up, and habits to practice to help keep yourself sane. If this was formatted into a poster, I would recommend hanging it in every single queer kid’s classroom and bedroom. Even though a lot of things it mentions are obvious, sometimes we all really need someone to enforce the obvious things.

The overall worth of this book lies in its overwhelming diversity. There are essays from all manner of nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, age groups. (I liked the touch of two essays being published in their original Spanish and Arabic, accompanied by translations.) There are essays from famous people and politicians and regular everyday people. Importantly, there are a lot of essays from religious people, all different kinds. For just a tiny example, there was something deeply moving about these basic words from the outstanding Bishop Gene Robinson: “God loves you beyond anything you can imagine.”

It must have been a monstrous task to sort through the thousands of It Gets Better videos as well as soliciting new essays from other contributors, but I think Dan Savage and Terry Miller did a fine job. No matter who you are, in this book, you can probably find something that speaks to you. And that is a wonderful blessing for LGBT youth, and for all human beings in general.

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