Since its premiere at the Rainbow Variety Show in late October, Eastern Michigan University’s contribution to the It Gets Better project was shared over 1,800 times on Facebook in under 24 hours. To this day, the video’s view count and message continues to grow.
“The It Gets Better project is a message of hope,” said Bily Simmons, Campus Life student program coordinator. “It’s a message that no matter what you’re going through there’s going to be a moment after the worst moment that’ll make it worth it. It’s inspiration that it may be bad now but it’s going to get better.”
The It Gets Better project was started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller last September in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or perceived as such. The goal of the project, and its videos, is to prevent LGBT youth suicide through the testimonies of LGBT adults telling these youth that their lives will improve.
“The It Gets Better project is really amazing and powerful,” said Dennis Patrick, communication, media and theatre arts professor, undergraduate advising coordinator and director of the Center for the Study of Equality and Human Rights. “If you go to the website and watch these videos, it’s such a wave of support, love and affirmation for LGBT youth who are being bullied, teased, harassed or are considering suicide and feel completely alone. It’s just really powerful when you watch the stories that are being shared.”
Within its first week, 200 videos were uploaded to the project’s Youtube account and reached the 650 video limit by the second week. The project moved to its own website which now features over 22,000 entries, including those from LGBT-related groups, celebrities, politicians, TV shows, businesses, and sports teams.
“The point of these videos is to tell bullied youth that ‘we’ve been where you are and we made it and we really care about you,’” said Laurie Stevens, who works for EMU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center. “Just saying it’s okay and that we want to be there for them means the world to some people.”
Though originally and primarily internet-based, the project was featured in a Google Chrome commercial which caught the eye of Simmons.
“I saw the Google Chrome commercial promoting the It Gets Better project and contacted Campus Life Arts and Entertainment Program Coordinator Gregg Costanzo about [the project] and he suggested we make one here at EMU,” said Simmons. “We ordered a camera and asked LGBTRC Program Coordinator Mary Larkin to help gather people to be in the video. She sent out some e-mails and we made a promo video inviting people to share their story. From that we got 20-30 people who wanted to be a part of it, some said they were glad we’re doing this and a lot of professors replied saying they were excited that we were making one.”
Simmons reached out for participants and discovered someone who couldn’t physically be in the video but found another way to be involved.
“For the video, Bily contacted me during the summer while I was in Tennessee, so I couldn’t be in the videos,” said Stevens. “But I really wanted to help and be involved so he let me work with the video’s storyboard and edit.”
The majority of It Gets Better videos feature one person’s story with a message of support woven in but EMU’s contribution wasn’t created overnight. With the featured testimonies of 23 students, staff and faculty, interviews took a summer to schedule, coordinate and film.
“Getting the interviews together was a lot easier than I thought it would be,” said Simmons. “People were so receptive to having the opportunity to do it. I’d meet with the participants and give them a rundown of what the project is and what we were trying to do. I never limited anyone in what they said; some people would share their coming out story or their experience with bullying in high school but they all wanted to say ‘it gets better.’”
Once the interviews were completed, Simmons and Stevens set to start editing the individual videos into one unified story.
“After all the interviews were done, Laurie constructed a storyline off of what people had to say and then I took over and worked on the editing,” said Simmons. “Together we decided what should be in there, what needed to be added and what helped the story be complete.”
“Bily gave me a flash drive and I watched all of the footage that he recorded and some of the interviews were really intense, some were really long and some kind of rambled, but the message of each story was so touching,” said Stevens.
Such a message is something Patrick wished he had heard when growing up in the 80s.
“To me, it’s the kind of thing I wish I had when I was a young man in the 80s coming to grip with my sexual orientation,” said Patrick. “When you grow up in a small town in the Midwest without any images of LGBT people like you have today, you really think ‘I’m the only one in the world who feels this way’ so to actually see the video, that’s the kind of thing I wish I had. I’m happy to be a part of it. It offers a message of hope for LGBT youth that things are bad sometimes but if you hang in there things will get better and there are people like you all over the place that support you.”
Though the video was well-received, some criticized the timing of its release. One critic commented on the (unlisted) Youtube video asking why it hadn’t been released around a year after Dan Savage, one of the co-creators of the It Gets Better project, spoke at EMU.
“We got flack from someone who wrote ‘well it took you long enough, Dan Savage was at EMU last year and it took you guys this long to get this video out there,’’ said Simmons. “It stung a little; on one hand they’re right but at the same time they’re wrong because there’s never a bad time to put a good message out there.”
“Bily was super busy and the video took a lot more editing than you would think,” said Stevens. “I really think the video came out when it needed to and the Rainbow Variety Show was a good place to premiere it because we wanted to be in a space with plenty of people there. We didn’t want to air it in front of six people, as important as those six people are it’s also crucial to get it to a bigger audience.”
Such a big audience wouldn’t have been possible without one of the areas in which EMU shines: the support of its ally community. In EMU’s It Gets Better video, LGBT and straight allies stood together to say “it gets better.”
“There were a lot of straight allies in the video that when we premiered it at the Rainbow Variety Show I asked the audience not to assume anyone’s sexual orientation,” said Stevens. “Sometimes I wish the term LGBT was just QA (for Queer & straight Ally) because allies are such an important part of our community. We couldn’t get where we need to without their support, especially here at EMU. Our ally community here is so strong and I think the reason they want to be involved is because they really do care and see LGBT people as humans, their brothers and sisters, even in our Greek community.”
As a member of this ally community, Simmons agrees that the LGBT community deserves equal rights.
“Straight people should care about gay rights for the same reason white people should’ve cared about civil rights back in the 60s,” said Simmons. “Coming from me is a different story because I was bullied for being gay even though I’m straight. That’s a bit of my story and it really inspires me to speak out because I know what it’s like to be bullied. It’s important that everyone is given the privilege of equality.”
Such fairness and equality is a privilege Patrick believes we should work towards for all.
“I’m not the first person to say this but gay rights are human rights,” said Patrick. “If you have a concern for fairness, equality and decency, no matter what your sexual orientation is, you should be concerned about gay rights. I’m concerned about civil rights in general whether those extend to a person’s race or religion or whatever it may be. If you believe in fairness and treating people equally, you should be concerned about gay rights. There are some amazing people in the LGBT community who add so much to this campus and this community and they deserve equality. We should work for all people to achieve fairness and equality.”