Monday, November 22, 2010

It Might Get Better

It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds.


From itgetsbetter.org:
Many LGBT youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves. So let's show them what our lives are like, [sic] let's show them what the future may hold in store for them.

The It Gets Better Project is a creative, non-coercive suicide prevention project directed at gay youth, who are at a highly elevated risk for suicide attempts. Folks are invited to make a pledge:

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I'll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I'll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that "It Gets Better." [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Dan Savage, the creator of the project, says:

'When a gay teenager commits suicide, it's because he can't picture a life for himself that's filled with joy and family and pleasure and is worth sticking around for,' he declared.

'So I felt it was really important that, as gay adults, we show them that our lives are good and happy and healthy and that there's a life worth sticking around for after high school.'

I find many things to be supportive of here:


  • It acknowledges how sucky life is for many gay kids;
  • Non-coercive methods are advocated;
  • It's pro-gay and pro-freedom;
  • It's kind of heartwarming and encourages people not to be ashamed of something it's stupid to be ashamed of.

However, as much as I approve of these aspects of the project, I would not be able to make the above-printed pledge. "It gets better" is an empirical statement, and it is one I don't think can responsibly be made so unequivocally. I think there is a great deal of evidence that it does not, in fact, get better. It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds. We do it, I think, to feel better about the wrongs we allow or commit against children, both as parents and as a society that can only function with a high rate of reproduction. We are here told to tell the gay kids and the bullied kids that it gets better. But what we need to ask first is: does it get better?

For Kristin and Candace Hermeler, the Australian twin sisters who attempted to carry out a suicide pact (with limited success) in Colorado, "it" does not seem to have gotten "better." An article in the New York Times indicates that the 29-year-old sisters were bullied as children, and chose to die at a shooting range in Colorado because of its proximity to the site of the Columbine massacre. For the Hermeler sisters (no word on their sexual orientations), being bullied in high school was not, apparently, followed by a happy life of contentment and adventure. It was followed by a mutual wish to die.

One question we need to answer empirically is whether gay suicide attempts in fact decrease dramatically with age. If they do, that's some evidence that youth is just a tough period to get through. I haven't dug up any data either way (let me know if you find some); the only study I've seen found that "first attempts" tend to cluster at young ages, but I don't think that has anything to say about later-in-life suicidality.

"It Gets Better" makes the assumption that children are committing suicide because they irrationally think life is crappy and won't get better. Many attribute the high rate of teen gay suicides to bullying and homophobia:

Beth Zemsky, director of the University's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office, said [a 1998 study indicating an increased risk of suicide for gay youth] is consistent with previous research. She also said our culture's intolerance of homosexuality, which can often be violent, leads many to take their own life [sic].

"Suicide attempts are often caused by the stress of a homophobic society," said Zemsky. "The study is in line with the American Psychiatric Association. People are not killing themselves because they are gay, but because they are dealing with a society that discriminates." [Bolded emphasis mine.]

I have never seen the evolutionary psychology side of things considered with regard to the high rate of suicide among gay kids, but that nasty idea seems to require serious consideration here, if only to make better models to understand suicide. This may help us understand why gayness is a risk factor for male suicide attempts, but not female. (Personally, I took way more crap in high school for being a cheerleader and being on the math team than I ever have for being bisexual.)

The idea that youthful suffering is short-lived is an empirical proposition. There is some evidence that as people age, their ability to cope with life's suffering increases. But not always. If the organizers of the It Gets Better Project cared about intellectual honesty, they'd call it the "It Might Get Better Project."

But that wouldn't be as catchy.

18 comments:

  1. I am curious why there is no suicide prevention project for men in general. Men commit suicide at 4 times the rate of women. 80% of suicides are men.

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  2. "why gayness is a risk factor for male suicide attempts, but not female."

    Really? Why is this so according to you?

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  3. I don't have a theory yet. I only discovered the statistic recently. Very interesting!

    Here's one of the studies.

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  4. Does the statistic stand independent of the male/female difference in suicide rates? Do lesbians have a higher incidence of suicide in comparison to heterosexual females?

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  5. The article "Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience" claims that a moderate amount of adversity leads to better mental health than both no adversity and severe adversity. Personally speaking, I think I am already past that point and in the realm of ludicrous adversity.

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  6. Also, maybe this explains Curator's own suicidal ideation in spite of (in that case, because of) no significant adversity (by her own admission).

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  7. Plague Doctor -

    In the article (full text), only relatively rare negative events are viewed as adversity. I think the list of adverse events is much more extensive than what they used in their measure. They also acknowledge that "[e]vents that
    do not meet standard definitions of trauma can still make important contributions to adversity counts".

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  8. CM, not sure why your comment is not showing up . . .

    Anyway, here is the comment:

    "Plague Doctor -

    In the article (full text), only relatively rare negative events are viewed as adversity. I think the list of adverse events is much more extensive than what they used in their measure. They also acknowledge that "[e]vents that
    do not meet standard definitions of trauma can still make important contributions to adversity counts". "

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  9. To play Devil's Advocate for the IGB folks, their theory might be that gay kids are unhappy because they view the rest of society as despising them. If they were aware of the people who care about their continued existence and the hope for a better tomorrow that fact alone may make life more pleasant.

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  10. Thanks.

    This is a situation in which I hate being right.

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  11. Being told that it gets better can make it become better, by giving the bullied youth fortitude and forbearance.

    I don't think it's dishonest to say, "women live longer than men" or "the Dutch are taller than the Italians", even though, obviously, not all women live longer than all men, and not all Dutch are taller than all Italians. It's a statistical statement.

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  12. Sister Y: Personally, I took way more crap in high school for being a cheerleader and being on the math team than I ever have for being bisexual.

    Is this an apples-to-apples comparison, i.e., were you publicly bisexual in high school?

    And do adult women in Boston or Los Angeles take crap for being avowedly bisexual? Like, crap for being bi, as opposed to not having their sexuality being taken seriously?

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  13. Re: fortitude and forbearance - yes, I think that's valid. But living through e.g. high school has a cost that seems to be minimized by the "it gets better" logic. (Another thing that it minimizes is how crappy life still is for gay adults in many circumstances.) I'm closer to the geek-bullying question than the gay-bullying question, and I would feel dishonest telling a bullied geeky kid that life will be sunshine and roses and video games if he can just get through high school.

    Bi girl and gay boy are not the same - that's my point. Treating them as the same thing (in terms of suicide risk and maltreatment) despite evidence that they're completely different, based on someone's conception of identity politics, is silly. Bisexual invisibility is just not the same level of shit as gay bashing. Bill Metz, a gay man, was stabbed 20 times by a skinhead (who carved a swastika on his body, as I remember) and dumped in my high school's parking lot WHILE I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL in Reno, Nevada. But I never even had anyone call me a dyke (in a bad way), and yeah I was pretty publicly bisexual in high school (as of age 15 or so).

    "It gets better" just seems to offload all the costs onto the gay kids - "suck it up, son" - rather than adults actually doing something to MAKE it get better.

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  14. life will be sunshine and roses and video games if he can just get through high school.

    Sure, that would be dishonest, and also unnecessary, and maybe also counterproductive. Telling anyone that life will be sunshine and roses and video games if he can just get through X is dishonest and unnecessary and counterproductive. But you can tell him that life can approach normal, and that the shit gap between gay boys and non-gay boys generally narrows in adulthood, which is true.

    "It gets better" just seems to offload all the costs onto the gay kids - "suck it up, son" - rather than adults actually doing something to MAKE it get better.

    Why the "rather"? Do you think that participating in the "It Gets Better" campaign saps energy from adults who would otherwise lobby their schools and legislatures to make things better? I'm generally skeptical of these sorts of claims. Relatively easy things like "It Gets Better" can be a sort of gateway good. In any case, it's an empirical question.

    I think the costs are already on the gay kid. "It Gets Better" improves their ability to deal with the costs, and also serves as examples of sympathetic adults, so they may be more likely to seek and find people to help ameliorate the costs.

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  15. Why the "rather"?

    I hadn't thought if it in those terms - clearly an empirical question, here is the research on the saps-moral-energy side, not sure about the "gateway good" side of things, but I'm thinking about the trick where getting you to promise to do some little thing (like mailing envelopes) makes you more willing to do bigger stuff - hindsight self-justification? Jim Jones supposedly used tactics like those before he became a cult leader.

    Your last paragraph is well taken.

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