It Gets Better, For Whom?

This post first appeared on the author’s column, Quite Queerly, on

Several videos from the ubiquitous “It Gets Better” project feature famous, “top” gays guaranteeing that a better life awaits all L’s, G’s, B’s and T’s if we hold our heads high. Pop star Adam Lambert advises not to give bullies “the power to affect you, [because] you’re letting them win.” Actor Neil Patrick Harris says, “you can act with strength, you can act with courage… stand tall…be proud.” And fashion designer Michael Kors assures us that if he wasn’t “different,” he couldn’t be, um, Michael Kors. While these statements are all extremely well-intentioned, they beg the question, “for whom does it get better”? (For pop stars with a security team to ward off haters? For exceedingly famous actors who are lauded for “acting straight” and conforming to gender stereotypes? For Michael Kors?)

If it is hazy for whom the victory bell of “It Gets Better” actually tolls, the NFL has made crystal clear for whom it does not: unestablished, openly LGBT folks for one, especially those hoping to play for the NFL. After last week’s report about an NFL prospect being asked if he “liked girls” during a scouting interview, the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens player and equality advocate Brendan Ayanbadejo (whom I’vecommended elsewhere) stated, “I think players need to say that they’re straight right now…keep everything, so-called normal. And maybe later, once you’ve established yourself…maybe then players will be more comfortable to really be who they are.” The recommendation to refrain from disclosing one’s “gayness,” either by what one says or how one says it–what I call “Don’t Act, Don’t Tell”—is most disappointing coming from an athlete and public figure who has used his platform tirelessly to promote equality. But Mr. Ayanbadejo is only the messenger here, reminding us of the reality that, in many cases, before things can truly get better, queer people are expected to cover ourselves in the jersey of a “normal” and score a touchdown of obvious success. Things may get better, but first, we must “win.”

Now, this may seem to work for pop stars who don’t let the bullies “win,” actors who can “act straight,” football players who are good at lying(Manti T’eo?), and any other fortunate others whose “normal” qualities have buoyed them to great success. But what of the others, those who can’t “win”? Queer theorist Heather Love writes, “[O]ne may enter the mainstream on the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it.” What, then, is in store for those of us pegged as “losers” even by the marginalized communities to which we belong?

In a chapter of his bookBoyhoods: Rethininking Masculinities, entitled, “Faggot=Loser,” psychoanalyst Ken Corbett illuminates how we expel our anxieties of loss by projecting them into others, maintaining binaries of bigness and smallness, strength and weakness, winning and losing. (We might add to this list: bully and victim, straight and gay, normal and queer, established celebrity and unestablished nobody, he for whom things get better and she for whom things do not.) Using a case example, Corbett emphasizes the value of allowing loss to take effect, the power of being recognized in our loss, and of recognizing it in ourselves. Corbett finds that through a mutual recognition of loss we may begin to believe in our own recovery from it, and in our capacity to engage in a life that gets better.

The “It Gets Better” project is a grand achievement, and the abundant and various non-famous voices on the website offer much neededempathy and recognition. But we might consider how unhelpfully easy the lucky, privileged, “normal” few can make hope sound. We might consider how easily all of us can get ahead of ourselves, and who we leave behind as a result. Must we become winners to avoid being losers, and if so, who becomes the losers? Can we instead make room for our own losses, to allow our lives, as philosopher Judith Butler proposes, to be “grievable” and, in the words of psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris, to find a way for our experience to be “narratizable, coherent, recognized, not disavowed”?

Fortunately several famous “winners” have called attention to the palpable loss in queer communities. In a speech accepting an award from the Human Rights Campaign last year, Oscar-winning actress Sally Field spoke about her gay son’s wish to be “normal” like his brothers, and how she supported him through his painful struggle to accept his differences. Similarly, in his “It Gets Better” video, out actor Zachary Quinto conveys a genuine recognition of the tragedy, despair, and hopelessness that pervades many LGBT lives, suggesting that in order to move forward we must first, as Heather Love says,”feel backward.”

There is much to be gained by sharing loss, and much that is lost by shielding ourselves with gains. When our losses are recognized we can face our own wounds in the looking glass, and become empowered to move through to the other side. We must believe that we exist as we are, before we can believe in getting better.


Face it, mid-winter is not your finest hour.Many of us are putting off our vows and ambitions for the new year.Some of us are unhappy with our bodies (holiday over-eating, relentless blizzards limiting effective gym time), and some just burying our heads like ostriches, in order to avoid the winter blues—or what some call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).We hibernate, isolate, avoid invitations – preferring the couch to the concourse – all because right now you just don’t feel like being “you” and certainly don’t want to expose your sorry state to anyone else.Fortunately television producers know exactly how you’re feeling, and obligingly offer you a buffet of exciting special events – in order to lose your blues in someone else’s excitement – including the Super Bowl, the Grammy’s and the Oscars.
The Oscars are perhaps the most alluring spectator sport of all, since we get to observe our beautiful heroines and heroes of the screen as they enjoy a surprise moment of unequivocal attention and lauds.Witnessing the Oscar winner seize this moment of grand deference, in a speech of three minutes or less – speaking from the heart as she expresses gratitude, shares her passions, and takes a moment to mention the ideals and social issues which are important to her – transports us from our SAD obscurity into a thrilling moment of receiving vicarious reverence.Of course the big hangover comes when the show is over, you return to your own life…and realize that it’s very late, on a very cold Sunday night.
For those of you who connect with the above experience, here’s what I suggest: give your own Oscar acceptance speech to the bathroom mirror.In three minutes or less, tell your looking glass how grateful you are, why it is so meaningful to win an award for “this” particular project, thank all of the people to whom you are indebted, blow kisses to all those who enrich your life, share what you value most about the work you do, and emphasize one or two important issues to which you’d like to bring international attention.If you feel it wanders or bombs the first time, take advantage of the fact that there is no orchestra to bully you off the stage (or out of the powder room) and give it another go until it feels right.
I know what you’re thinking: (1) “Isn’t this behavior Narcissistic?”; (2) “Isn’t this behavior Psychotic?”; and (3) “How can this be healthy?”My answers to these are:(1) “Yes, but there is such a thing as healthy narcissism.If you repeatedly thank yourself, as opposed to other people, in your “loo” speech, that would be the unhealthy kind.”(2) “Only if you do it every day, and at the exclusion of conversations with other people.”(3) “Because we all need our emotions, urges, and creative desires mirrored back to us, in order to feel secure, integrated, and motivated.If we’re not getting this mirroring from our relationships, we can at least imagine how we would express ourselves if given the opportunity to be showered with infinite positive attention.Besides, most of you have done this already anyway, so…”
The goal of this exercise is certainly not to replace social relationships with a reflective surface – the literally fatal moment of the Narcissus myth – but rather to motivate you to get off the couch and engage with others more purposefully, meaningfully, and effectively.We can’t really see other people and offer them generosity, love, and support if we’re not feeling seen, loved, and supported in our own skins.Perhaps your private Oscar moment will inspire you to surround yourself with people who are better reflectors than your current friends, or maybe it could open up significant topics to be discussed in your therapy.Whatever the outcome, at least you will have given yourself a moment to reflect on your potential as an individual and as part of a community.Just take it easy at any imagined “Oscar after parties” after you’ve finished your “speech.”