Clinton and Obama tell gay teenagers 'life will get better'

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Washington

Media caption,
Hillary Clinton's contribution to the It Gets Better project

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posted a video on YouTube on Tuesday. But her message wasn't intended for heads of state, diplomats or monarchs. It was for troubled gay teenagers.

"Take heart, and have hope, and please remember that your life is valuable, and that you are not alone," Mrs Clinton says seriously, looking squarely at the camera.

"Many people are standing with you and sending you their thoughts, their prayers and their strength. Count me among them."

On Friday, President Obama followed suit, releasing a message from the White House urging Americans to "dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of's not."

"I don't know what it's like to be picked on for being gay. But I do know what it's like to grow up feeling that sometimes you don't belong," Mr Obama says. "With time you're going to see that your differences are a source of pride and a source of strength."

These videos are the latest high-profile contributions to the fast-growing It Gets Better YouTube channel, a project started by Seattle-based sex columnist and author Dan Savage to provide hope and support to vulnerable and possibly suicidal gay teenagers.

In the past few months, at least seven American teenagers have taken their own lives after being bullied and harassed by homophobic peers.

That list includes 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge outside New York after fellow students allegedly broadcast a video of him having sex with a man on the internet.

Savage, who writes the widely-read, syndicated column Savage Love, had been mourning the death of Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old student who hanged himself in his grandmother's barn after being intensely bullied at his small-town school.

Kids at Billy Lucas's school called him a "fag" - a common taunt - and told him to kill himself.

Media caption,
The first video which was produced for the It Gets Better project

Savage recalls wishing he had been able to talk to Billy Lucas and tell him not to harm himself because once you have survived the high school bullies, life gets so much better.

But, Savage told the BBC, he thought he would never get permission from a school or a church or even the parents of teenagers to talk openly to young people about being a happy gay man.

"It occurred to me that I didn't need permission any more," Mr Savage said. "I could upload a video and speak directly to these kids, and tell them before they commit suicide that it gets better."

Savage created the YouTube channel four weeks ago, uploaded the first video and used his column to encourage others to tell their stories.

He describes his campaign as somewhat subversive, going over the heads of parents, teachers and school administrators to talk directly to young people.

"We're not going to let accusations of recruiting children or brainwashing children or being sexually interested in children stop us any more. Lives are at stake," Savage told the BBC.

He had convinced his media-shy husband Terry - who had been brutally bullied as a teen - to appear with him. The couple share their stories, talking about the difficulties of their youth, the joys of their adult lives and urging teenagers to stick it out because life gets better.

"We were worried that we were maybe going to get three or four videos and look a little foolish," Savage confessed.

But his video soon went viral, and within weeks, more than 2,000 videos of people pouring their hearts out were uploaded from across the country and the world. The videos have been viewed more than 10 million times.

Savage is both surprised and proud of the response, adding that many of the videos have brought him to tears.

Young people and old, Mormons, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses, have all contributed.

One of the earliest videos posted is from Kitty in London, who admits to having harmed herself when she was younger. She wishes there had been a project like this when she was growing up in a small town.

Although Mr Savage didn't seek celebrity endorsements, numerous stars, including Neil Patrick Harris, Zachary Quinto and Chris Colfer from Glee, have recorded their own videos.

In a deeply emotional video, Project Runway style adviser Tim Gunn reveals that he tried to commit suicide at age 17.

The most watched video is of a city councillor from Texas, Joel Burns, who uploaded a moving video of an anti-bullying speech he gave during a recent city council meeting.

Fighting back tears, Mr Burns tells the council that he was a victim of anti-gay bullies at school who had told him "I should die and go to hell where I belonged".

Mr Burns chokes up, barely able to continue, recounting his fear that the bullies had seen in him something that he, as a young teenager, had not even come to terms with himself.

The videos have resonance for children, gay or straight, who are picked on at school. But Savage says they are particularly important for gay or sexually unsure children.

Those young people, he says, often cannot cry on the shoulders of their parents. Scared to talk about their sexuality, they feel isolated at school, at home and at church, where they are told their feelings are immoral and wrong.

"The bullied gay kid has no-one," he says, later adding that this is why Mrs Clinton's video is "a big help".

"To see the Secretary of State take time out of her insanely busy schedule to reach out to 13-year-old gay kids in little towns who are getting harassed by their families, their churches and the little bigots at their schools, that can really make a difference," Savage said.

Mrs Clinton's involvement is doubly important to Savage while policies exist to prevent gays from serving openly in the military and same-sex marriage.

"Discrimination against gays and lesbians on behalf of federal, state and local governments, cheered on by the Christian right, legitimises anti-gay bullying," he says.

The It Gets Better project has been criticised by some teachers for containing messages from adult film stars, drag queens and transvestites, which they consider too raunchy for young people.

Savage scoffs at those claims, saying young people hear far worse things on TV and from their friends. And besides, he says, it is his project.

"I'm a sex writer and I'm not going to censor or police or exclude people," he said. "This doesn't have to pass muster with the Texas Board of Education."

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