It Gets Better: Feel Good About Accomplishing Nothing of Substance

Posted: 10/30/2010 in Network Culture, Queer
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[Trigger warning for transphobia and ignorant stereotyping of transwomen]

I pretty much hate the “It Gets Better” project. I feel like it encapsulates everything that is wrong with network culture. You can’t crowd source the solution to suicide and you can’t change the world with a youtube video. Technology is a means to an end, a problem solving tool. Not the solution. It’s a nice idea, but it’s deluded and doomed to fail no matter how nice that idea is. We should all be aware by now that words need to be followed up with actions and yet here we are in 2010 increasingly believing that the Internet has made action irrelevant. There’s an old joke that gets told a lot in the introductions to books on postmodern magic and the occult. A guy prays every day to win the lottery and never in his life does he win. When he dies and gets to heaven, he asks God why he never answered his prayer. God replied “You never bought a ticket.” All that’s happening is attention being siphoned away from legitimate organizations who already exist and are working directly with youth to overcome the debilitating effects of bullying.

There’s some pretty huge arrogance at work here for someone like Dan Savage to ride in on a white horse like this is the change we’ve all been waiting for. Because you know after Live Aid, no one ever starved in Africa. Bob Geldoff totally licked that problem. This is just catharsis, to make people feel better about an issue they ignored while doing very little. There are some admirable people involved in this whole thing who are trying to use the platform to shed some light on things that don’t get attention, but this is just not the way to go about it.

One of the biggest problems with trying to target LBGT youth is that even if closeted youth (who are privileged enough to have private Internet access) can steal away to watch a video or read a story that will give them some small measure of comfort, they’ve got to have already come to the conclusion that they’re queer to even have the inclination to watch that video or go to that site. It precludes the notion that some youth are having very difficult internal battles over just who and what they are. I didn’t understand that I was a transwoman until I was 25 (I turned 26 last month). I grew up feeling different and I was bullied and marginalized until I subconsciously started to build up enough of a facade of normalcy to avoid suspicion. The line in Tom Ford’s film A Single Man, “Think of a minority that can become invisible if it has to,” cut me straight to my core. I’m desperate to come out despite my crippling fear of the consequences, but it wasn’t always that way. From around age sixteen, I started turning inwards to suppress who I felt I was because every time that I let my real self out it had devastating consequences.

An incident that’s always stuck with me was once in junior high when for whatever reason we were left without a teacher for a while and the class was goofing around. I don’t remember the exact context, but one of my classmates had set themselves up pretending to be a talk show host or something and people would come up to do impressions or whatever. It was pretty spontaneous, so I got up and for whatever reason decided that I wanted to pretend to be a Valley Girl Rights Activist. (Don’t ask, I have no idea. It was around 1998 and I was somewhere around fourteen.) What stuck out is that the class responded to it positively, but in the wrong way. They proclaimed they loved my “gay voice” and my “gay impression” was fantastic. I quickly got upset and insisted several times that I wasn’t attempting to sound or act gay, I was being a Valley Girl. When you’re gender variant and you haven’t quite figured it out yet, you just get called gay a lot with varying degrees of malice or genuine inquiry attached.

I was dead certain that I was attracted to women, but I was deeply hurt by being constantly assumed to be gay because I refused to adopt the attitudes and behaviors of the other boys, my deep interest in fashion design, and the fact that I almost always played as female characters in video games. (I quickly decided that if it hurt this much to be constantly called gay when I wasn’t, it must hurt even more to be called gay as a slur if you actually were.) The point here is that the It Gets Better campaign would have completely passed me by. Well, not really. I would have been bombarded with people either asking me if I’d gone to the site or assuming that I did. This is also why I bristle at the lame jokes about Kurt on Glee that conflate gender variance with homosexuality. That attitude, that is still fully functional in 2010, was another major hurdle I had to get over in my self discovery. It never occurred to me that I could be a transwoman because everything I had ever heard or seen about “transsexuals” as I heard them called were attracted to men, frequently concealed the fact they had penises to get straight men into bed with them, likely to be HIV carriers, and were almost certain to be sex workers.

The first sympathetic and positive portrayals of transwomen that I encountered occurred between 2004 and 2005 when I read The Sandman, The Invisibles, and Promethea. While I liked Hilde well enough, it was the Bill Woolcott incarnation of Promethea that resonated with me more than I cared to admit or understand at the time. It was probably around that time that I first started to understand what it really meant to be transgendered but it wasn’t until 2008 that I encountered a heterosexual gender variant person in Eddie Izzard and 2010 when I first encountered a transwoman attracted to women, Judy from Better Than Chocolate. Of course it needs to be said that from 2007 forward I made queer friends who eagerly took me into and explained their world even before they saw the same inexplicable thing in me that I had fought my whole life first to understand then to suppress. But once they did, they encouraged me to figure out what it was and provided me with the encouragement and safe space that I needed in order to figure it out.

What youth of all descriptions need aren’t peppy videos from successful adults. What they need is a safe peer environment that both allows and encourages the freedom to express and discover themselves fully. The current wave of gender variant youth who have both the self possession and courage to have realized what they are and fight to live openly absolutely astound me. It’s awe inspiring that under the same if not worse pressures that I faced at their age, they’ve managed to do more for themselves and each other than I have with the ten years I have on them. Not that my generation, or previous ones didn’t fight for their rights, but it certainly feels like there’s an incredible amount of visibility in both cisgender and trans queer youth that I’m sure I never saw at the same scale in the nineties. Of course being different in any way back then meant you were accused of planning to shoot up your school, but I digress. Every generation has it’s particular challenges and it’s never intelligent to be deciding who had it worse than who.

Case in point being the bizarre, shambling creature we call social networking which is basically being referred to in relation to the present issue the same way that Homer Simpson refers to beer. “The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” What does it mean when streaming video- the ostensible trigger of Tyler Clementi’s suicide- is being touted as it’s solution and the social networks where the “cyberbullying” that is sending young people like him to an early grave are supposedly the vehicle for massive social change? It means that people are getting completely lost in the hoopla and neologisms.

I’m pretty sure that it’s a well known thing now that The Social Network is suggesting that Facebook is the product of a social misfit who got really drunk one night and coded a website in the hopes that he would get validation from a peer group who wanted nothing to do with him. He might have also stolen part of it from someone else. This is what got let out into the wild and became the biggest thing in the English speaking Internet after Google? That movie should have scared the shit out of people, and yet I feel like I’m one of the only people sitting here feeling like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park:

If I may… I’ll tell you what the problem with the scientific power you’re using here is; it didn’t take any discipline to attain it. You know, you read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves so you don’t take any of the responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.

Of course he is also famous for sitting in a moving car talking to himself because no one was listening. Everyone was so caught up in how much money there was to gain and who it should belong to that, just like in Jurassic Park, they didn’t stop to think about the consequences of “putting the college experience online” and then later flipping a switch to allow minors access to it. The college experience, and by extension the real world in general, includes more than narcotic and/or sexual exploration, studying, and streaking. It also includes the full range of prejudices a person could experience from racism and (cis)sexism to homophobia, ableism, and any other detail about a person that can be used to make them feel small. “Cyberbullying” isn’t a thing. It’s not a concept independent from bullying in any other form. It’s the same attitudes and behaviours that have simply gained wider scope and ubiquity thanks to the Internet widening the scope and ubiquity of communication.

What we’re experiencing is the same sudden realization that technology grew faster than our ability to properly understand it’s consequences, say nothing about counteract them as ten years ago when the dawn of file sharing ravaged the recording industry. Except that the cost of the unforeseen consequences of social networking isn’t counted in profit and loss statements, it’s in lives and there doesn’t even seem like there’s much of an acknowledgment of it.

Instead we have this absurd mentality that online interactions are somehow other than face to face human interaction and yet at the same time forgo traditional “real world” activism in favour of mind numbingly pointless acts like becoming a fan of a movement on Facebook or adding a ribbon to your Twitter avatar. I’ve read most of William Gibson’s novels, I’m even reading one right now, and you know people talk a lot of shit about how influential his work was on how we conceptualize the Internet, but aside from sharking his terminology to sound intellectual, I’m pretty sure most people didn’t learn anything from it. In the cyberpunk cycle of his work there was a lot of people putting on VR rigs and plugging things into their heads and so on which could lead you to believe that the experience was somehow other than reality, but no one ever solved anything in a William Gibson novel by jacking into a VR rig alone. They generally had to, you know, go out and do things. This is also largely true of the movie Hackers.

It’s really too bad that the only artifact from Gibson’s novels to make it into the canon of western pop culture is the visual aesthetic of cyberpunk, because underneath all those stacks of fancy computer equipment and designer drugs are important and powerful parables about the social and economic upheavals that necessarily occur in an ubiquitously connected society.

I guess the point, if there is one, is that taking the path of least resistance and maximum positive PR is not an intelligent or effective way to get people to stop killing themselves. Real change takes real action.

  1. We have people on campus rallying folks to vote on a particular issue this week. Apparently, in this little town, it’s completely legal to fire someone or evict them from their home for being gay, lesbian, trans, anything but completely straight. I’m thinking I might just direct them to your blog, if that’s alright with you. Unfortunately, a few overnight stays in the arts building kept me from registering, so I couldn’t vote, but I’m doing my best to help out.

    (Just to clarify, the people I wanted to direct here are the ones trying to change the policy.)

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