On May 2, The AIDS Foundation of Chicago held its annual Spring Luncheon, which featured humorist, columnist, and activist Dan Savage as its keynote speaker. Savage addressed a room full of local and state politicians, community representatives, and LGBT youth, speaking about the impact of bullying on LGBT youth and how it intersects with HIV.
Seated at my table were two very charming students, Aaron and Hannah, who head up their high school’s Gay Student Alliance (GSA), as well as Chris, their school sponsor. Alex Sewell, the first African American openly gay student body president of Chicago’s Roosevelt University and a recent graduate, introduced Savage as “the person who started a national conversation about the impact of bullying of LGBT youth with the It Gets Better Project.”
Savage began his talk by relaying the tragic story of Indiana teenager Billy Lucas, who hanged himself after having been brutally bullied, leaving his mother to discover his body in the family barn. In a posting following Billy’s death on Savage’s Facebook page someone commented, “I wish I had known Billy Lucas, I would have told him, things get better.”
The rest is YouTube viral video history. The project created an international anti-bullying movement, spawned thousands of inspirational testimonials and videos, and eventually a book, website, and a non-profit organization. The It Gets Better Project helps to raise awareness and spread encouragement by providing messages from average citizens and celebrities alike, reaching out to LGBT youth who are being bullied—it lets them know they are not alone.
So what does all this have to do with HIV? A lot, explains Savage. LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit suicide, and eight times more likely to experience violence in the home. They are at increased risk for acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, and 40% of young homeless people are LGBT youth who have been kicked out of their homes.
A recent study in the Journal of School Health goes on to point out that there are increased public health costs over the long-term as a result of LGBT-based bullying, including not only higher risk of suicide attempts and contracting STIs, but greater levels of anxiety and depression, all of which are mostly due to decreased levels of self-worth directly related to victimization.
What the It Gets Better Project did was collapse the idea that LGBT adults could not speak to LGBT youth. “We are going to talk to your kids whether you want us to or not,” Savage says. “Whether or not you value your child’s life—we do.”
Savage recounted a conversation that he once had with his brother, who he described as having been a “geek” in high school, and who was bullied as well. The difference, though, says Savage, between a kid who’s bullied due to race, religion, or for being a geek, is that when they go home, they usually have families and parents who support them. “LGBT youth almost invariably go home to more bullying by their parents and families,” he believes, “and then get dragged to church on Sunday to be bullied by the pulpit.”
At the end of the talk, I asked Aaron and Hannah if they would like to meet Savage, and they both excitedly said yes. We walked to the front of the room and waited as Savage patiently posed for photos, and graciously spoke with everyone who wanted to meet him. As I made the introductions, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the courage of these bright, capable young adults who were living their lives out in the open, seeking to make a difference in this crazy world we live in.
And having been bullied myself as a kid, I can honestly tell you that it does get better. But, that’s another story.
More more information, go to itgetsbetter.org