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YouTube channel tells gay teens: It gets better

Seattle columnist Dan Savage launches the project in the wake of a spate of suicides. Hundreds of people have uploaded videos telling their own stories and telling bullied kids: 'You're not alone.'

October 09, 2010|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times

Nick Wheeler once thought it was impossible to be gay and happy.

The Internet changed that.

Wheeler, 26, who grew up in a Mormon household in a 4,000-person town in Idaho, said that after discovering blogs and YouTube videos, he realized gay people did, in fact, lead fulfilling lives.

"That was enough to give me hope that there were other people out there who felt like I did," he said.

Now, he wants to do the same for others. And it's why he decided to make a video for the It Gets Better Project, a YouTube channel launched to tell teenagers who are being bullied because of their sexuality that it does, indeed, get better in time.

The project was sparked by the recent suicides of Tyler Clementi, 18; Billy Lucas, 15; Asher Brown, 13; and Seth Walsh, 13. Seattle-based sex columnist Dan Savage said he couldn't stand to see another teen die, so he sat down in front of a camera with his partner, Terry Miller, and started talking.

They talked about the bullying they endured as teenagers, how they met and what life is like now. And they invited others to send in their video testimonials too.

"There were no gay people in my family and no openly gay people at my school, but I was picked on because I liked musicals and I was obviously gay and some kids didn't like that and I did get harassed," Savage said in the candid, 8-minute video.

Since Sept. 21, the channel has clocked more than 1.2 million views. More than 650 people young and old, gay and straight, religious and atheist, have submitted their own stories.

Savage, 45, said he's taken to carrying his laptop everywhere to review submissions to the channel. He's been overwhelmed by the response, and at times, he's cried from what he's seen.

"It just runs the gamut of experiences," he said.

In Wheeler's video, he described being told that homosexuality "wasn't something that was natural. It was something that could only bring sadness."

Another contributor is fashion consultant Tim Gunn, who comes across as a tough mentor for aspiring designers on "Project Runway," and who uploaded a video Oct. 5. "As a 17-year-old youth who was in quite a bit of despair, I attempted to kill myself, and I'm very happy today that that attempt was unsuccessful," he said in his video.

"It will be better, I promise," said Gunn, 57, before blowing a kiss to the camera.

There's 19-year-old Ibad Shah, a Muslim from Danbury, Conn., who described coming out to his family. His father told him he was a "failure of a son" But things changed.

"I'm here, in my dorm room, on the West Side of Manhattan studying something I love, which really just goes to show you that it does get better, things do get better," he said in his video, shot at New York University.

There's also Stephen Sprinkle, a 58-year-old ordained Baptist minister from Dallas, sitting against a backdrop of books in his office. In a calm voice, he described being closeted for 20 years and the freedom he felt when he came out.

"I teach in a divinity school and I love what I do," said the professor of theology at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. "I enjoy talking about God all day long and I'm as out and free as I can be."

The videos aren't limited to gay people.

Hudson Taylor, a straight assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University, said he was overcome with a sense of urgency after seeing Savage's video. Taylor, 23, is an activist for gay rights; in college he wore a sticker for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay advocacy group, on his wrestling helmet.

"A 30-second video can make a big difference," he said.

The popularity of the project has underscored the need for more comprehensive programs in schools across the country to deal with bullying, said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

"Students are being called derogatory slurs, and very rarely are people intervening," she said. "That creates the culture that's happening every single day."

Nine out of 10 gay teenagers experience bullying and harassment at school, according to the 2009 National School Climate Survey, an annual survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are three to four times more likely to commit suicide than straight students, according to a report by the National Education Policy Center and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. And there are many more studies with similarly grim news.

Savage realizes his project won't stop harassment of gay teens. But he said the videos can offer teenagers hope, and the promise of acceptance with time. "They need to see that families come around," he said.

Wheeler, who now lives in Salt Lake City, could have used such a message growing up in rural Idaho. Told growing up that gays were evil, Wheeler was afraid of them, he admits.

But now, in his It Gets Better video, Wheeler appears comfortable, wearing a white V-neck T-shirt, his eyes on the camera.

Now, he tells his unseen audience, "Every day, it gets better."

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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