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.

Containers and Pinatas

We can all identify with the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. At some point in our lives we’ve unwittingly sat on the wrong wall (some taller than others), fallen (some more disastrously than others), and broken into so many pieces we feel beyond repair. Whether our breaking has taken the form of a simple blow to the ego (i.e., not getting cast as the Jolly Green Giant in the school play—because you’re four feet tall), or severe trauma, abuse, or loss, each of us has felt broken, disconnected, and fragmented.
Recognizing that all the king’s horses and men can’t put us back together, we try to reassemble ourselves, or at least attempt to contain our broken bits – as if temporarily storing them in an urn – until we figure out how to heal, and to feel whole again.
Here are a few ways we try to contain our feelings of brokenness:
1) We seek mastery over our great fall by overcompensating. Not only are we determined NEVER to fall again, but we are also determined to become absolutely UNBREAKABLE. For example, if as a little girl you were cruelly criticized for your inadequate tennis skills, you might attempt to contain your feelings of incompetence through the single-minded goal of becoming the next Serena Williams.
2) We might use the creative arts to express our brokenness. The parameters that surround a work of art might allow us freedom to express ourselves. By directing the focus off of us and onto our creation, we contain our fragmented feelings within the part we play, the dance we choreograph, the picture we paint, or the book we write.
3) We seek guidance in the form of a therapist, counselor, or spiritual advisor – Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion used the term “container” to describe a process where a psychotherapist holds, and reflects back a client’s thoughts and feelings for the client, until the client is ready to identify with those thoughts and feelings and possess them as their very own.
Containing our shattered emotions can be the beginning of great healing, but it only works if the container is secure. If it leaks, breaks or combusts, then it is no longer a container, but rather a piñata instead. When the walls of our containers crack, this can re-stimulate the experience of our original fall, leaving us once again feeling vulnerable, weak, broken, and hopeless. Here are some examples of the containers that I described above, becoming piñatas:
1) We are simply unable to overcompensate for the damage caused by our shattering fall – overcompensation being a precarious goal/container to begin with. If the little girl who was criticized for her inadequacies as a tennis player, fails to become the next Serena Williams, her debilitating feelings of inadequacy will inevitably become re-stimulated.
2) The work of art we create, in order to hold our broken feelings becomes too revealing, too unfocused – a scattered expose. If the parameters of the character we play, the story we’re trying to tell, or picture we’re trying to create, are not clear and appropriately observed, the work could potentially become too unnecessarily personal and exposing, leaving us vulnerable to harsh rejection and judgment by our peers and audiences that is directed at us and not our creation.
3) If our therapists, counselors, or spiritual advisors, take on more personal roles in our lives (friends, peers, co-workers, lovers, companions), or freely expel information we give them in confidence to anyone who will listen, we are being compromised, and will likely become less trustful, less hopeful, and more broken then we were when we sought help.
It is far easier to freely discharge our broken fragments into piñatas, rather than endure the discipline of keeping them contained. However, by respecting the solid parameters of a container, particularly in terms of a psychotherapeutic relationship with clear and agreed upon boundaries, much progress can be made. Emotional healing takes time, it is a process, and it is hard work, but respecting and accepting the limitations of a container can result in great liberation—and with time, you may even feel “back together again.”