'It Gets Better': How a viral video fueled a movement for LGBTQ youth

Julie Compton
·10 mins read

In 2010, a rash of LGBTQ teen suicides across the U.S. — including Seth Walsh, 13, and Billy Lucas, 15 — inspired the gay advice columnist Dan Savage and his now-husband, Terry Miller, to do something. Together, the pair uploaded a video to YouTube with a simple but profound message: “It gets better.”

“If there are 14 and 15 and 16 year olds — 13 year olds, 12 year olds — out there watching this video, what I’d love you to take away from it is, it really is that it gets better,” Savage said into the camera. During the eight-and-a-half-minute video, published to YouTube on Sept. 21, 2010, Savage and Miller talked about the bullying and rejection they experienced as gay teens, and how life got better for them in the years after high school. Their message went viral, and in the ensuing years gave birth to a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading it.

This week, as the It Gets Better Project celebrates its 10th anniversary, it is now home to 70,000 video stories from LGBTQ people and their allies. Brian Wenke, who took the helm as executive director in 2016, called the organization an “accidental nonprofit.”

“When he posted it, I'm pretty confident that he didn't anticipate it going viral,” Wenke said of Savage’s video, which has been watched millions of times. “You know, at the time, YouTube was pretty young, and it was a place where people posted cat videos — it wasn't necessarily a platform leveraged for social good. And we do own a little bit of that, you know, being one of these first viral campaigns, specifically intended for social good, and when it went viral, there was sort of a flurry of activity around whether or not this movement was sustainable and worthy of developing into something with a little more infrastructure.”

Brian Wenke, executive director of It Gets Better Project, in 2019. (Diana Zapata)
Brian Wenke, executive director of It Gets Better Project, in 2019. (Diana Zapata)

The nonprofit is run by a small team of less than 10 people, but its reach includes a global affiliate network across 17 countries. At the heart of the It Gets Better Project is the vulnerability of its storytelling. Openly LGBTQ celebrities like Adam Lambert, Lavern Cox, Neil Patrick Harris, Kesha, Portia de Rossi and Janet Mock; social media stars like Gigi Gorgeous; and politicians like Joel Burns, a former city councilman in Fort Worth, Texas, have all gotten in front of the camera to talk about overcoming bullying, rejection and shame. Out employees from major companies like Apple, Google and Comcast-NBCUniversal (NBC News’ parent company) have also shared their stories. Even former President Barack Obama, speaking as an ally, took to the platform to tell LGBTQ teens that “things will get better.” Still, the nonprofit has struggled to find those willing to tell their most personal stories to the world, Wenke said.

“I don't know if you've ever tried that before, but just as an experiment, you should go home and just turn your computer on and just try to talk about a very traumatic experience that happened to you, and how you have grown as a result of it,” he said.

“It's very difficult,” he continued, “and I think that's part of the process that I think is most challenging, is there are plenty of people that we would love to talk to and engage with and talk about, but once we get into sort of the granular details of what's involved, you know, a lot of people are not ready for that.”

When the internet was a ‘place for good’

As the It Gets Better Project has leveraged social media to spread acceptance, anti-LGBTQ organizations have also harnessed the viral nature of these platforms to sow misinformation and hate. According to a study released in July from Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit that monitors and analyzes misinformation across U.S. media outlets, right-leaning sources earned over 65 percent of interactions on top transgender-related Facebook content, almost twice the engagement of all other sources combined.

Brennan Suen, the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, said the internet is more polarized on LGBTQ issues than it was a decade ago.

“I had just come out when the It Gets Better Project came out, and I remember watching them on YouTube,” Suen, who grew up in Arkansas, told NBC News. “I remember the internet being this place for good. The internet and TV and entertainment media were really crucial for me as a young person in Arkansas to see representation, and if not find community directly, to see that we existed.”

“I think what we've seen over the last decade — and this is across a lot of issues — we've seen the internet, and particularly social media, change from the force of good that really connected people into something that is actually often a lot more dangerous,” Suen added. “It obviously still has great ways of connecting people, but I think that we've seen the potential for bad actors to really manipulate the space.”

The It Gets Better Project has continued to push its message, but it’s not always easy, according to Wenke. The group has worked hard to reach its elusive target audience of 13- to 24-year-olds in a digital space that is constantly evolving. Over the years, the project has expanded to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, he said. Most recently, it partnered with TikTok for its back-to-school initiative, the Queerbook Class of 2021, a digital “yearbook” of LGBTQ icons who share their advice for LGBTQ teens returning to school.

The It Gets Better Project also reaches youth by getting influencers and celebrities with large LGBTQ youth followings to share their stories, and by partnering with popular fashion brands like American Eagle and Converse, according to Wenke. While social media can be toxic for LGBTQ teens, he said these platforms are the only spaces for many teens struggling with their sexuality or gender identity to come together and find acceptance.

“We have just become more sophisticated in how we leverage these platforms,” he said. “We know how these algorithms work, we know where we have to push proactively and where organic reach is going to matter.”

Project’s evolution

In the U.S., youth suicide rates among youth ages 10 to 24 increased 57 percent from 2007 to 2018, and was the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10-34 in 2018, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System recently found that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide, and that transgender students are at a similarly high risk compared to their non-LGBTQ peers. Many experts suspect that the rise in youth suicide is correlated to increased social media use, though it’s unclear exactly how they are related.

A recent survey from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, revealed that 40 percent of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide, with over half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered it. The 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, which polled 40,000 LGBTQ youth aged 13-24, also found that 68 percent of the respondents reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and 55 percent reported symptoms of major depressive disorder over the past 2 weeks, and 48 percent reported engaging in self-harm in the past year, including more than 60 percent for trans and nonbinary youth.

Related: Over the course of a year, anti-trans Facebook posts earned more engagement than positive and neutral trans content combined, Media Matters for America found.

“Minority stress,” the impact of experiences like discrimination, rejection, victimization, is a major reason why LGBTQ youth are more prone to suicidal ideation, according to Amy Green, director of research at The Trevor Project and the survey's lead author.

“That relates to things like feelings of loneliness and shame, and those are all a pretty powerful force on risk for suicide,” Green said. “So we know that it's not something about being LGBTQ in itself; it's the way that LGBTQ youth are treated, and that can include from the level of the policies and the rhetoric that happens at a political and national level down to the way that a youth is treated in their home by their family and friends — and the rejection in particular has really negative relationships with suicide.”

The survey data is alarming, but Green is hesitant to conclude that suicide attempts among LGBTQ teens have gotten worse over the last decade, since there isn’t data from previous decades with which to compare. “We need more investment in data and suicide prevention to get to the bottom line,” she said.

Related: "We're here, we're queer, and we're not going away," Minot City Council member Carrie Evan said during a public meeting where residents made homophobic remarks.

While youth suicide statistics are grim, the last decade has given rise to a “greater sensitivity” to mental illness and a “willingness” to talk about it, according to Wenke.

“I think when you look at the early stories of the It Gets Better Project, they were very much focused on overcoming trauma, and validating experiences of young people: ‘Look, I went through the exact same thing that you did, and this is what I did to get past that and this is where I am today,’” he said. “But what you're finding today with people who are sharing stories is that there is an acknowledgement that trauma exists, and that there is trauma in the past, but that is not the main focus of the story that’s more about ‘This is what I'm doing now, and, yes, that happened, but it doesn't define me. It has shaped me, but I'm bigger than that.’ And there's a focus more on positive outcomes than trauma in younger generations today, which is encouraging.”

Power of the message

The last decade has seen a rising tide of acceptance for people who are LGBTQ. In 2019, four years after the legalization of same-sex marriage across the U.S., 72 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be accepted, compared to 49 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. Data shows that when LGBTQ youth are accepted, they are far less likely to see suicide as an answer. When LGBTQ youth have at least one accepting adult in their life, they are 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide, according to a 2019 research brief from The Trevor Project. The National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020 found that LGBTQ youth who reported high levels of social support from family and friends were significantly less likely to attempt suicide compared to those with lower levels, and those with access to at least one LGBTQ-affirming space were significantly less likely to attempt suicide than those who do not have access to one.

“I think one way that a project like It Gets Better helps is by visibility, by providing a forum for LGBTQ youth to feel like they're not alone, like there are others who are there, who are resilient, who provide them with hope for the future,” Green said.

Related: Jenna Bush Hager reveals that her late grandmother believed transgender people are “born that way.”

In the decade since It Gets Better was unleashed, the mantra has made its way into pop culture references in TV and film, serving as proof of how far it has spread, said Wenke. But he is also cautious about the message. “It gets better” doesn’t mean life gets easy, he noted — it’s really about sending a message to LGBTQ youth that they aren’t alone.

“I always love hearing, you know, a throwaway comment in a movie, ‘It Gets Better,’ which is a reference to our work, but it isn't necessarily shared within the context of our work,” he said. “But we are part of this zeitgeist, our little phrase is everywhere, and that is a testament to the power of that message. But it's ultimately up to us to help maintain its integrity by showing that it is out of the LGBTQ+ community that that phrase was born.”

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