The It Gets Better Project is maybe Dan Savage’s most ingenious creation, and that’s really saying something given that I’m referring to the man who made Rick Santorum’s last name synonymous with a frothy mix of lube and fecal matter. The initiative Savage formulated in 2010 with his husband Terry Miller in the wake of a string of gay teen suicides incentivized activism by conflating it with something young people of today find irresistible: talking about themselves. Seated in the comfort of their own homes, and by barely lifting a finger, gay people could share attempts at goodwill, inspiration, and accrued wisdom with those struggling with issues regarding their sexuality. One day, gay youth, your life will be better than it is now, the flood of selfie videos said. One day, maybe you’ll get to feel righteous by filming yourself talking about yourself, too!
The project was rooted in a fundamental truth about gay people—our survival depends on other gay people—that was translated for modern sensibilities. There is no telling what actual impact it had on preserving young lives, but where it could be quantified it was phenomenally successful: More than 50,000 entries were filmed and uploaded, and they have garnered a total of over 50 million views.
Practically speaking, It Gets Better worked in the way that things “work” on the internet today. It got people talking. It “created a dialogue.” Philosophically, it wasn’t as tidy. Egocentrism and altruism are at ideological odds, just as branding and activism are at ideological odds. But now they are hopelessly intertwined, and Savage’s project illustrated just how. The democratization of communication has increased the ease with which you can create a display of how good you are, and project your benevolence to the world. You do good, you get a kickback of attention at minimum (at maximum, you devise your armchair activism for the purpose of commanding attention). Pure generosity is anonymous, but we are an increasingly public species, so priorities shift and moral compasses spin. And besides, if you don’t take credit for your goodness, you’re at the risk of no one noticing you and instead paying attention to the guy who will take credit for his (in front of an audience that is unfazed by shamelessness). Ideological conflicts may continue to pile up, but if no one notices because we’re all busy looking at ourselves and other people, does the clutter even matter?
I’ve been wondering as much in the wake of the online responses to Sunday’s Pulse shooting in Orlando. I read and view them with skepticism. It’s hard to ferret out the meaningful from the truly empty gestures. It’s hard to say which performances are for performance’s sake. We are by now trained to say something, anything, when national tragedy strikes, lest we be accused of not caring or, even worse, miss out on the attention and accolades the hottest take of the hot takes brings. It’s important to get this right and that may require several attempts, sometimes to embarrassing results. Hours after news of the shooting broke on Sunday, the New York Times’ Frank Bruni published “The Scope of the Orlando Coverage,” which essentially argued that all lives matter. But...why? For the sake of argument? To combat the specific sadness over the specific massacre of people who were targeted for being specifically queer? “This was no more an attack just on L.G.B.T. people than the bloodshed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an attack solely on satirists,” wrote Bruni (this was excerpted on the NYT Opinion Twitter even more fumblingly by omitting the “solely”: “This was no more an attack on L.G.B.T. people than Charlie Hebdo was an attack on satirists”). Two days later, Bruni returned with more Orlando opining, “A Time to Stand With Gay Americans,” which called out Republican politicians for not acknowledging the bigoted nature of the shooting. So, saying this was an attack on gay people was too narrow, but not acknowledging that gay people were attacked was wrong, too. The canal Bruni dug out for his vision of proper response to this atrocity was so narrow it caved in on itself. Why did Bruni bother saying anything? Well, because saying is what we do. Plus, it’s his job.
On Elle.com, Melissa Harris Perry wrote “Gay Space Cannot Be Straight Women’s Safe Space Until It’s Safe For Those Who Are Gay,” a mouthful of a headline that foretells convolution to come. It seems that Perry’s desire was to argue an angle that she viewed to be missing from this vast discussion about gay spaces and allyship, but her piece is so cliché-ridden, and her point so tangential to the issue of gay hate crimes that the essay ended up taking up the same psychological space as a (almost always straight) woman screaming for attention in a bar for gay men. Why did she bother saying anything? Well, because that’s what we do. Plus, it’s her job.
On Sunday, Mara Wilson—the internet person known to many or most as the woman who was once the girl from Matilda—posted a picture of herself at a gay bar on Twitter and went on to reveal that she has “embraced the Bi/Queer label lately,” and then clarified that she is a 2 on the Kinsey scale. That seems like a paltry display of solidarity, but OK. Be proud of your 2. Showing a modicum of solidarity is what we do.
Me at a gay club when I was eighteen. I feel embarrassed looking at it now... pic.twitter.com/qMZec3WBvu— Mara Wilson (@MaraWritesStuff) June 12, 2016
Music producer Diplo tweeted to rapper Angel Haze that he is “half gay.” Which half, though? Top or bottom? Front or back? Right hand or left? Was he joking? Why reveal this at all if he was going to leave it so vague? Well, being at least a little gay is what we are.
Conservative blogger Jim Hoft came out as full gay. How he reconciles that identity with a career devoted supporting a party that is resolutely anti-gay (for example, here’s a headline from Tuesday: “House GOP leaders block LGBT vote after Orlando shooting”), and how on this ever-queering earth he figures that anyone on either side of the culture war is going to take his plea for gay conservatism seriously is truly beyond me. But coming out is what we do.
Nick Jonas, who has a history of explicitly acknowledging his gay fans, often to the chagrin of many who think he’s just pandering for gay dollars, spoke at a rally on Monday at Stonewall. This angered many people, because Nick Jonas just released an album and this was a mark, I guess, that his intentions weren’t pure. He’s supposed to abstain from pandering...even though pandering is what celebrities do? In a piece called “Dear Nick Jonas: The LGBT Community Needs You to STFU,” Complex quotes “artist, photographer, and popular Twitter user” Shon Yves as saying, “How dare someone who is not a part of our community take up space in this way?” Well, sure, but celebrities take up a disproportionate space in every community. That is what we pay them to do.
Conservative trolls and self-obsessed personal essayists Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos held a press conference Wednesday in Orlando to say mean things about Muslims (and in McInnes’s case, to voice disgust over gay sex). Why did they do this? Because they are trolls who command enough attention to justify their self-obsession.
Why does anyone do any of this? Because making major events about oneself is an increasingly practiced component of the digitized-human condition. One could argue that this isn’t about you, it’s about us, but then there is no us without all the yous. This is the dilemma that we have not yet untangled. It is a key reason why public communication is so knotty, why activism and branding are increasingly conflated. If it gets better, why does this seem only to get worse?
It will only get knottier. The best we can do is our imperfect best, and indeed, some tremendous expression rooted in personal experience has emerged in the wake of this tragedy—out journalist Anderson Cooper, in particular, has once again proved himself to be exactly the kind of leader his people and the American people need. Cooper’s at one end of the spectrum, McInnes and Yiannopoulos at the other. But make no mistake: United we stand on that spectrum.