Is ‘It Gets Better’ Still Relevant?

I was in university when the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign started. At the time, it was a great movement. Droves of people rallied together and made videos to show support for victimized children and youth, who were at risk of suicide due to bullying at home and at school. I’ve never seen any statistics related to the success of that campaign, but I like to think it made a difference to a good many people. The message that “there is a time beyond this when you will thrive, when you will belong, when you will find acceptance,” along with the message “you are not alone,” was powerful. Like all good ideas, however, ‘It Gets Better’ has been used to the point of becoming cliché. What happens next is kids hearing “it gets better” begin to ignore it, left with the unanswered question “what about right now?”

To be clear, I think “it gets better” is a good message. Things certainly got better for me, and the same is true of many people who were bullied in their younger years. It does get better, that’s absolutely true, but for today’s youth, the message provides little consolation. Bullying, hatred, lack of acceptance, and abandonment from family and peers, is ruining lives now. To the 15-year-old who is being denied a happy present, a better future is a hollow promise. To the 12-year-old struggling to cope with a developing identity, the thought of a happy adulthood really isn’t relevant. They live in the now, and their lives are important now. We need to understand this and redefine the message. Now the problem becomes what message should that be?

There is, unfortunately, no easy solution here; at least not one that I can think of. What do you say to a child suffering from so much hurt? We’re used to saying “don’t worry, it gets better,” it comes as naturally as saying “I’m sorry for your loss” at a funeral. Clichés become staples in our cultural dialog, and they can be hard to replace with something relevant when they’re no longer useful. The problem with replacing “it gets better,” I think, is that the issues we use it for are much too large to address during a brief encounter. When a child is feeling conflicted by mixed messages concerning identity, and gender, and feelings of guilt and shame over having these dilemmas, there’s nothing quick we can say to ease their suffering. We got used to saying “it gets better,” but that’s not enough anymore … and maybe it never was.

The point I want to make today is that the time has come for ‘It Gets Better’ to retire. Think of the reasons for recent suicides, and then ask whether “it gets better” might have helped. Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life due to relentless bullying and abuse after she was photographed being raped at a party. Leelah Alchorn took her own life due to systemic religiously motivated abuse at the hands of her parents. The pandemic of suicide among young people under the age of 25 is skyrocketing, and in most cases it’s due to bullying and abuse now. It may get better, but that’s in the future. There is no future for these kids. There is only now, and now feels hopeless to them. So what can we do? Is there a quick message, a mantra of some sort? What do we say to a person seeking a comforting few words? … … beyond “here’s my email if you want to talk,” I don’t know. I speak and write because I feel these issues are much too big for brevity, but sometimes brevity is all we have to work with. What they need is re-assurance, comfort, support, validation, safety, encouragement, and strength, all in one short passage.

I welcome your ideas, your comments, and your thoughts. Lives are being lost, and we have to figure out what to say to those who see no other way to stop the hurt.

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A Happy Holiday To All

Over the next couple of days, many of us will be gathering with friends and loved ones to celebrate whatever tradition we observe at this time of year. I sincerely hope that it’s a happy time for you. If you will be with family, cherish them. If you will be with friends, let them know how much they mean to you. If you will be alone, find the quiet contentment that lives within you. If you celebrate a holiday tradition, enjoy it. If you do not celebrate a holiday tradition, make the most of your days as you would any other time of year.

I wish only the best for all of you all year round, but at this time, in the spirit of my own tradition, A Happy Holiday To All!

Ideal For Children: A Mom And A Dad?

Let’s talk for a minute about parenting. I’m a big fan of the web show The Young Turks, and as I watched an old episode the other day, host Cenk Uygur said something that caught my attention. He said “the ideal for children is a Mom and a Dad. In a perfect world, that’s the way it would be, but it’s not, and we have to accept the many types of families that exist.” Now, I generally don’t find myself in disagreement with Cenk, but in this case I disagree so much that I felt compelled to write about it. This isn’t the first time I have heard this from my fellow ‘leftists,’ as a matter of fact it comes up quite often. I disagree each time, and right now I want to talk about why.

To say that we must accept all types of family unit is a good thing. Healthy, well rounded young adults can, and in fact do, arise from every type of home. The problem arises when we try to make claims about what the “ideal” family should look like. The claim that the ideal is a Mom and a Dad assumes that all Moms and Dads are willing and able to meet the needs of the child. It’s an erroneous claim, and it would be just as wrong to claim that any other type of family is ideal. Effective parenting is not reliant on gender. We all have different personalities, some are good parents and some aren’t. The ideal situation for a child is any situation where that child’s needs are being met. Apart from shelter, clothing, warmth, food, and hygiene, a child has psychological and social needs. Parents are responsible for showing empathy, compassion, love, and discipline. They are responsible for nurture, and teaching values like respect for others. Parents are mentors, they are role models. Children need guidance, a moral foundation, an understanding of the world, and opportunities for social development. Being a parent is a full time job that requires many qualities, and those qualities are found in all sorts of different family units. A Mom and a Dad, a Mom and a Mom, a Dad and a Dad, a single Mother or Father … if the needs of the child are being effectively met, the parenting situation is ideal.

A favourite tactic of the right on this issue is to bring up the “social science research” to support their version of the ideal. This is a very weak argument. While it’s true that the majority of the research on good parenting reflects a bias toward heterosexual pairings, that’s because the majority of two parent homes are comprised of heterosexual parents. The research into the domestic abuse of children reflects the same bias, because once again, the majority of two parent homes are comprised of heterosexual parents. Research on different types of family units is rather new by comparison, so the data is not as plentiful. One thing we do know, however, is just what I have said. A child needs many things throughout their development, and we see wonderful people, whose needs were met, coming out of every type of family. There is an absurdity to an argument that assumes the correctness of the majority. Bias toward one thing merely by number does not indicate an ideal situation, it merely indicates that more work has been done on it. Two parent households that have a Mom and a Dad produce great kids. So what? So do same-sex parents, and so do single parents. On the flip side, all of these types of families sometimes produce terrible kids.

Gender has nothing to do with parenting, not even a little bit. This myth that men and women are so vastly different that they bring uniquely different abilities to a parenting team is hogwash. It’s society’s idea of binary gender roles that causes us to think this way, and it is completely out of touch with reality. My spouse and I are good parents because we each have qualities that compliment the other, and as a team, we provide the needs that our children require. The fact that we are man and woman doesn’t matter. Our abilities are unique to us as people, not to what society attributes to our genders.

The bottom line is that good parents are good parents regardless of what qualities they are assumed to have. The ideal is NOT a Mom and a Dad. The ideal is a home in which a child’s every need is being met.

Why Do People Dislike The Duggar Family So Much?

While scrolling through my Facebook news feed the other day, I came across a post from a Christian friend wondering why people were so angry with the Duggar family and petitioning to end their Television show. This question puzzled me. “How could they not know,” I thought. While I continued and read the comments, it became clear to me that these people genuinely don’t understand. I suddenly realized that all of the pushback against religion, the outrage over homophobia, the revulsion to conservatism … is just noise to them. They really don’t get it. On the off chance that I might be able to catch their attention, I thought I would do my part in trying to explain.

If you haven’t heard about the Duggar family, they are an ultra- conservative American family with a television show called “19 Kids and Counting.” That’s right, 19 and counting, and that’s just the beginning of what makes this family unusual. You see, the Duggars are fundamentalist Christians (not unusual yet, keep reading), and the ways in which their values manifest in their behaviour has led to the adoration of many fans; who uphold them as the ideal picture of a Christian household. For example, none of the kids can go anywhere, with anybody, unless a sibling tags along as a chaperone to make sure they don’t do anything contrary to their values (ie: kissing). They are only allowed to “side hug,” so that there genitals do not line up with the person they are embracing (this applies to family as well as non-family). Instead of dating, they have to engage in courting. Courting involves interviews with both the parents and the family as a whole, to determine whether or not the prospective pair will be a suitable match. Once officially courting, all rules concerning physical contact must, again, be observed and enforced by a chaperone (no kissing, side hugs only, etc). Yes, the Duggars are unusual, but that’s not what I wish to talk about today. This family has come under fire recently for their homophobia, and as happens with these things, there is now a rather large petition calling for TLC to cancel the show.

Now, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the Duggars are homophobic. With values like theirs, I would be stunned into a coma if they weren’t. I was shocked, however, when I learned that Michelle Duggar (the matriarch) went to the trouble of recording transphobic robocalls, and sending them throughout her Arkansas community. Then came the already-infamous Facebook incident, where the Duggars asked the public to submit pictures of couples kissing … could they really not foresee what was going to happen? Same-sex couples started submitting pictures … and the Duggars started taking them down … and everybody got upset. Add to that their insistence and firm stance on this ever since, and you have a big mess in which progressives and conservatives are at each other’s throats.

So why the outrage? People in positions of power, oftentimes religious power, make homophobic statements and spread hate everyday. Why target the Duggars? Well, while it’s true that people in positions of power demonstrate bigotry everyday, the Duggars are a unique case. This large family has managed to do what no other “reality tv” family has. When we watch the Robertson family on “Duck Dynasty,” we see the embodiment of some qualities the religious right loves, and other qualities that appeal to many non-religious people. Outrage was sparked over Phil Robertson’s homophobic remarks, but criticism of his praying at the end of every episode was short-lived, and many people still watch the show. In “19 Kids and Counting,” we see something truly unique: The embodiment of everything the religious right holds dear, and everything the secular world is disgusted by. It’s not something for everybody with the Duggars, it’s everything for some and mental ipecac for others. You may be able to overlook some things about the Robertson’s and still enjoy “Duck Dynasty.” I haven’t yet met a person watch an episode of “19 Kids and Counting” and not have strong opinions to express afterward. Never before have we seen a family inspire so much emotion on such extremely opposite ends. In this case, an old cliché is true. You either love them or you very strongly dislike them, and although the outrage was sparked by homophobia and transphobia, the reasons for that love and dislike go much deeper.

I don’t think we dislike the Duggar family for what they have done (and continue to do), although what they do is disturbing, dishonest, and troublesome at best. We dislike them for what they represent, and what they represent is precisely what the religious right loves them for. Phobic and fear-mongering as they are, this family represents what is demonstrably wrong with the world. They run their lives by archaic religious principles and use their positions of influence to push those ill-informed values onto everybody else (ie: the robocalls and every other form of publicity they can get). This insistence on enforcing one’s values on the rest of us is precisely what has caused so much inequality and division in our society. The core problem with religion is that it is exclusionary. It is counter-productive to the unity it claims to value, and the Duggars are a 21-strong unit bent on furthering that cause. Why are they disliked so much? Why is there a petition to cancel their show? Because they represent everything that keeps us from coming together. What they do is a big problem that should be addressed, but what they represent is what upsets us so much. If you are one of the “if you don’t like it don’t watch it” crowd, consider this: 21 people can do a lot of damage. 21 people with a TV show can do even more damage. I’m not concerned with the effect that watching their show may have on my own sensitivities, I’m not that selfish. I’m concerned with how they are effecting others, how they are influencing pop culture, and how the ripple-effect is going to play out as it ruins even more lives. I watch because it’s my business. When somebody is hurting others with misinformation and hate, it’s everybody’s business.

As a final note on this, I was actually surprised at Michelle Duggar’s actions in making and sending those transphobic robocalls. That she would go to such an extent just to demonize an already misunderstood segment of the population, is nothing short of disgusting. If I ever get the chance to meet her, I have something to say that I have already said to many phobic evangelicals and fundamentalists. If the Christian God does exist, he’s probably not very happy with you. You may find Jesus leaving you to hold that noose all by yourself.

Undeniable Condescension: “It’s Just A Phase”

Today, I am going to talk about the condescension in the words “it’s just a phase.” This particular phrase is one of the many that I take exception to, as it is quite often used in reference to my own dedication to social equality and ongoing battle against fundamentalist Christian doctrine. The real problem with the phrase, however, goes far beyond its use in regard to me and my work. The real problem is that “it’s just a phase” is too often used in regard to the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ teens. These young people who are subject to extreme social stigmas, increased risks of violent attack, and often die young as a result of murder or suicide, are further marginalized by their parents and loved ones, who callously avoid any attempt of understanding by dismissing their very personhood as “just a phase.” I’m going to talk about the use of this phrase in my own life, and then I’ll discuss the use of it in regard to LGBTQ people. We must all understand why the use of “it’s just a phase” is one of the most hateful things any parent or family member can say about a relative who is LGBTQ.

From our earliest stages we grow and develop, and it is through that development that we learn the consequences of our experiences and actions. Learning about consequences, of course, requires one to engage in the behaviours that spark the consequences in the first place, and so we go through behavioural and emotional phases. I have gone through these phases myself, of course. As a child, I wanted to be a cowboy, then a police officer, and then a firefighter. I decided later that maybe I would be a banker, or perhaps a famous rock star. I spent my teenage years angry at the world, suffering from the delusion that I was always the smartest person in the room and nobody understood me. As a sailor, I indulged in many things that need not be spoken of, and as a university student, I gained new and wonderful perspectives on humanity and the natural world. These were phases, times in my life in which I experienced things that led me to my own unique understanding of the world around me. All that I am now was shaped and influenced by those phases. Through them, I have defined my sense of self, my values, my convictions, and my entire identity. I now know who I am and what I stand for, and although my future experiences will continue to re-shape my world, my sense of self and purpose is no longer in flux. The thing about maturity is that it comes after those phases, and is necessarily the point at which you know very confidently who you are. Now, I have been accused quite often and quite recently of “just going through a phase.” There are many people who naively think that my departure from the church and dedication to LGBTQ rights is some sort of rebellious period, and that I’ll eventually get over it. Those same people are also quick to dismiss my level of education on the subjects of religion and culture. “It’s just a phase.” At 33 years old, I find this type of condescension terribly insulting. I can, however, handle it. After all, it doesn’t really matter if people think that my worldview is a phase. I may be insulted, but nobody is attacking my personhood. What I believe, what I hold dear, and what I value are all the result of what I have learned. When I am accused of going through a phase, I am not being devalued as a human being. “It’s just a phase.” While this phrase doesn’t devalue my humanity, it is very different for the LGBTQ teen who is accused of the same thing in regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I have lost count of how many times I have read, heard, and watched as somebody has accused an LGBTQ teen of “just going through a phase.” There are countless status updates on social media written by young people who are lost, confused, and terrified because their families dismiss them with this offensive rhetoric. Our teen years are difficult as it is, and this kind of dismissive attitude only makes things unnecessarily worse. It takes courage for an LGBTQ teen to come out to family. After all, there is still a lot misinformation out there. A lot of people don’t understand just what sexual orientation and gender identity are. They don’t understand that being homosexual is just as natural as being heterosexual, and they certainly don’t understand the complexities of what it means to be Trans. This can cause a lot of friction in families, and it is up to those families to alleviate that friction by educating themselves. It’s not necessarily their fault that they are ignorant on the subject, but it is their responsibility to leave ignorance behind and learn as much as they can. Dismissing your child, when they have just summoned all of their courage to tell you something deeply personal and important, is one of the worst things you can do. Parents and family members who act this way quite frankly make me sick to my stomach. With all of the information available to us, dismissing the heartfelt reveal of a young person coming out as “just a phase,” is unacceptable and disgusting.

To be quite honest, my patience is wearing thin on this one. Ignorance will always be a part of our world, but is it not important that we understand each other? I don’t expect anybody to research these issues and make it their life’s work like I do, but I do expect them to read something. Does anybody go through their entire week without hearing LGBTQ issues in the news anymore? Wouldn’t it make sense to determine that it’s obviously an important issue that maybe we should all know a little bit about? The reason that so many people are closed off and bigoted is that they think they already have the answers. They are, in effect, plugging their ears and continuing to believe the fear-based misinformation that religious charlatans have been feeding them for decades. The existence of ideas like “homosexuality is curable,” “an immoral behaviour,” or “just a phase,” proves this point, as does the complete lack of knowledge out there about gender identity.

Ultimately, whether we want to admit it or not, these outdated and willfully ignorant attitudes are contributing to suicide and murder rates. They are contributing to pain and suffering. Shame on us for allowing this to go on for so long. With every young life lost due to ignorance, we gain more collective accountability for not having done enough to keep it from happening. “It’s just a phase.” Let’s work to put this repugnant idea in our past where it belongs.