Better idea

After Another Teen Suicide, Can We Do Better Than “It Gets Better”?

Four months ago, Jamey Rodemeyer of Williamsville, NY, made an “It Gets Better” video, usually something done by self-actualized LGBT adults who are happy with how they’ve turned out. But Rodemeyer was just 14 and in his video he admits his schoolmates often called him a “faggot” and that anonymous users had been posting vicious comments on his Formspring account—hateful messages including “JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND UGLY. HE MUST DIE!,” and “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it 🙂 It would make everyone WAY more happier!”

At one point Rodemeyer looks into the camera and says, “I just wanna tell you that it does get better because”—then he looks away and continues—”when I came out for being bi, I got so much support from my friends and it made me feel so secure.”

Near the end of his video, he repeats, “It gets better” for the third time before adding, “Look at me. I went to the Monster’s Ball and now I’m liberated. So, it gets better.” The young Gaga fan then makes a heart shape with his hands and the recording ends.

He uploaded the video on May 4. This past Sunday, he hung himself in front of his parent’s house.

In the month leading up to his suicide, Rodemeyer became a prolific Tumblr poster, regularly uploading images of Lady Gaga alongside the occasional image of muscle-bound jocks. But there were signs he was suffering: On September 8, he posted, “No one in my school cares about preventing suicide, while you’re the ones calling me ‘faggot’ and tearing me down” and he put up a separate post letting everyone know it was National Suicide Prevention Week.

The next day, he blogged, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” He followed it up with lyrics to the song “The Loss” by Hollywood Undead:

I just wanna say good bye, disappear with no one knowing
I don’t wanna live this lie, smiling to the world unknowing
I dont want you to try, you’ve done enough to keep me going
I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine for the very last time

On Saturday night, he posted a lyric from Lady Gaga’s “The Queen” on his Facebook page:

“Don’t forget me when I come crying to heaven’s door.”

Then he hung himself. He had just started as a freshman in Williamsville North High School.


NEXT: Are we doing enough to help?

Though Rodemeyer’s IGB video never mentions how his family, teachers or other adults responded to his coming out as bisexual in December 2010, his own comments suggest he had some kind of support system. His friends had reported the bullying to the school’s guidance counselor and at the time of his death he was seeing a therapist and a social worker.
Rodemeyer’s mother, Tracy, knew that her son encountered “horrible and malicious” bullying as early as the fifth grade and that he had begun having suicidal thoughts back then. “He used to cry about it, be sad and angry,” she told reporters. “But lately, he’s been blowing them off, or at least we thought he was. We sat him down multiple times and said, ‘What’s going on?’ but Jamey said he was fine and that the taunts didn’t bother him.” The Rodemeyer family went to their usual camping spot this past weekend where, Tracy said, her son seemed happy.

Here’s the thing: whenever a tragedy like this happens, people tend to blame the bullies for inflicting pain, the parents for being unaware, and the school for not doing enough to help.

But we don’t always take into account that most bullied LGBT kids never commit suicide and that the victim’s personal issues, depression and the confusion they feel about their sexuality all play a factor. Shortly before jumping to his death off the George Washington Bridge, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi addressed his roommate issues with his RA and even posted an optimistic message on the Internet.

Even with good support and a seemingly positive outlook, a person can still choose to take their own life.

Watching Jamey’s IGB video one gets the sense that he made it to convince himself that it gets better and to feel like part of something bigger, a reassuring community of once bullied LGBTs.

But Dan Savage started the IGB campaign for older, happier, openly LGBT adults to reassure younger bullied LGBT kids that one day they will have a life worth looking forward to—something a 14-year-old couldn’t understand, especially at the onset of high school, when bullying and social pressure usually become their worst.

We have criticized the It Gets Better project in the past—for meaningless reassurances from sports teams with no openly gay players, for closeted stars trying to have it both ways, and for Massachusetts Democrats using it as a cynical political tool to shame Republican colleagues.

But IGB is a worthwhile campaign. It has made visible the nationwide problem of anti-gay bullying and given a voice to countless, once invisible LGBT Americans. Visibility and personal stories have become especially key in helping repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and ending the deportations of same-sex bi-national couples. The many genuine individuals, celebrities, businesses and politicians who shared their stories of torment and triumph via IGB have helped change public perception of LGBTs and spur communities and politicians to address the issue.

But we have no way to determine how many at-risk kids are actually watching IGB videos nor whether the clips are helping them feel better or just making them feel worse for not having a better outlook.

Beyond the videos themselves, the only help the IGB website offers is a link to The Trevor Project, which offers a 24/7 hotline and suicide-prevention resources but no no content telling kids how to handle actual bullying.

Neither does the website for Ben Cohen’s Stand Up Foundation ,”the first foundation dedicated to anti-bullying.” The Trevor Project and Stand Up both provide links to other sites with anti-bullying resources, but often those resources are directed towards adults, educators, or require a good deal of clicking and searching before they yield useful youth-targeted advice for kids and teens.

Adults have put way too much emphasis on IGB as some kind of solution, rather than the nice supportive gesture that Savage originally intended. What we need now is a new viral campaign, one that talks directly to kids being bullied and teaches them how to deal with the situation they’re currently in—whether that’s therapists offering their services directly, web gurus explaining how to report and block abusive web commenters or, hell, black belts demonstrating basic self-defense techniques that would help them get away.

The days of getting stuffed in a locker or tossed in the girl’s room are gone. In the 21st century’s digital age, the threats have become greater and the response needs to be too.

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