Dan Savage was a 27-year-old video store manager when he started his sex advice column, “Savage Love,” for the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger.
“Savage Love” would go on to become the most popular syndicated sex-advice column in the country, and 19 years later, Dan Savage is
at the forefront of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activism through his support program, the It Gets Better Project.
Savage shared his experiences with the project to a crowd of 700 students, staff and community members Monday night in the Student Center.
Savage said he and his husband Terry Miller founded the Internet-based project in September 2010 after Savage visited the Facebook memorial page for Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old Indiana high school student who hanged himself after being bullied about his perceived sexuality.
Savage said he was disgusted that the same students who ridiculed Lucas in life were doing the same in his death by leaving negative messages on his memorial page.
Within the same month, Tyler Clementi, 18; Asher Brown, 13; Raymond Chase, 19; and Seth Walsh, 13, committed suicide after being taunted about their homosexuality.
Savage said despite the damaging messages students had posted on Lucas’ page, he saw an uplifting comment that read, “I wish I could tell Billy Lucas it gets better, rest in peace.”
He said the message struck a nerve and served as the basis for the It Gets Better Project.
Savage said he knew as an openly gay sex advice columnist, he wouldn’t be allowed into high schools and middle schools to speak to the students who he said were most at risk. But Savage said he realized through the Internet, he could speak to LGBT youth directly, without permission or invitation.
Since its launch, there have been an estimated 50,000 videos and one million participants in the project, including Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher and President and First Lady Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Savage said though he recognizes the validity celebrities have had on the project, it is not the basis of the organization.
“So many celebrities have submitted videos now that people thought we started as a celeb-based campaign, and we did not,” Savage said. “We were just asking everyday, average, ordinary LGBT people to tell their stories because we didn’t want kids to think in order to be happy, loved and safe when I grow up, I have to be (a celebrity).”
Brock Navarro, the marketing and social media graduate assistant for Saluki First Year and University College, said the program brought Savage to campus because the It Gets Better Project speaks to the issues a number of first-year students have dealt or are dealing with.
The GLBT Resource Center acted as a partner for the event.
Wendy Weinhold, GLBT Resource Center coordinator, said Savage’s lecture and the It Gets Better Project are rooted in unity and accepting people’s differences.
“Whether it’s coming together with your family, with your friends, as communities, as a university, Dan offers a reminder of how important it is to come together, and that is one of the most important messages of the It Gets Better Project,” Weinhold said. “I thought he offered us a tremendous opportunity to look within ourselves and say, ‘Are we taking care of our own?’ And if not, what can we do to better accomplish that goal?”
Marisela Favela, a junior from Chicago studying special education, said she has referred It Gets Better to many of her friends and peers who are struggling with their sexuality.
Favela said she looked to the Internet in high school and turned to any movies or articles that addressed homosexuality. She said films like, “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and books by Sarah Waters gave her a voice she said she couldn’t have gotten elsewhere.
“My parents are still in denial. My brothers knew it, but the first support system I had were my friends,” Favela said. “They were just awesome to me and it was really surprising to me. They were a really good influence on me, especially when I got to the point where like I can say it now.”
Favela said she plans on being a change agent in secondary education, where she said a majority of the sexuality-based oppression is the harshest. She said she plans to begin her career in middle schools and then make the transition to high schools.
“I haven’t been in the field yet, so I’m not for sure what’s going to happen, but I do know I’m going to be a teacher, and I do feel like I’m a good role model, especially for LGBT kids,” Favela said. “They need an adult in the classroom because the bullying is ignored and (teachers) just let it happen, and I would not let any bullying of any type happen.”
Favela said college has been a supportive environment, and she has found many students who have had similar experiences to hers.
She said programs such as the GLBT Resource Center are important to campuses and help unify the university.
Weinhold said the experiences of queer youth very both before and during college, but she said that for most students, university life is a time of relief and independence.
Savage said he agrees and hopes college students will continue to be allies and support systems for GLBT youth. He said despite all the praise and publicity the It Gets Better Project has received during the past year and a half, the aim of the project is to stop tragedy.
“The goal was not to have the biggest YouTube channel. The goal is to save lives, and we know we’ve done that,” Savage said. “When an LGBT kid doesn’t kill himself or herself, it doesn’t make the news. But we’ve heard from hundreds of LGBT kids who were helped and literally saved by these videos. What more could you ask for?”
To view SIUC’s It Gets Better video, please visit http://www.youtube.com/user/glbtrc.