For many, the most difficult times of our lives are high school, or even middle school. Years of turmoil for everyone, no matter who they are. Emotions run high and wild. Puberty blossoms and devastates. Youth struggle between homework, friendships, and their own budding senses of self. It is due to this, among many other reasons, that we often fail queer youth and their power, their bravery, their courage, and their strength. This bravery does not come for free though.
Queer youth are four to seven times more likely to try and commit suicide. They face extreme family rejection as well as peer rejection. They face mockery from student and staff alike in an environment that is supposed to protect, nurture, and educate. They suffer. They suffer during one of the most difficult times during a person’s life. So why, why do we never praise them for their strength and their courage? In fact, we tell them to shut up. We tell them to take it. Programs like the It Gets Better and Day of Silence campaigns promises queer youth that if they just suffer through, it gets better, do not fight. Do not challenge. Silently suffer.
Why do we not support our queer youth more? Whether they are in the closet or living open and proud, with a target on their backs or even their foreheads? Why do we not support their choices? Why do we not fight for them to be open and proud, without the risk of being driven from school or their homes? Why do we not address the hostile environments that make 20-40% of youth on the streets queer? Why? Why are we failing our children so horribly?
We have children, who despite struggling through extremely taxing times in their lives, are potentially putting their safety on the line to live openly. They are putting very educations on the line to live openly. They are boldly stating their identities, when many are still figuring theirs out, while potentially still trying to figure out their own. The are braving possible ostracization from peers, family, and staff for their identities. On top of the already difficult sea of friendships, education, and all the things that come with being a teen, they are fighting against society already. They are fighting so much more than they know, by simply existing.
These are children who endure potential abuse from peers and staff day in and day out. They experience the sharp and biting words and maybe even the sharp and biting fists of the people they may consider friend or acquaintance. They are crammed into inescapable classes and halls with the very people who may want to cause them harm for their existence. When a child comes out and lives openly and boldly, despite this, they have more courage than we seem to give them. These are children who have more strength than many adults may have to expose their most personal aspects to fellows who are so willing to tear them down and apart at their most vulnerable.
Of course, this is not to say that children who in the closet do not need our support either. The right to come out is something that comes down to personal choice. Given how society acts to queer adults and how teenagers react to other queer teens, it is no surprise that one would wish to stay in the closet. However, the closet only insulates, it does not completely protect. The walls of our closets are thin and the things people say and do still vibrate within. Openly queer teens still experience extreme levels of depression, loneliness, and suicidal feelings. They still experience potential problems in school from their identities. These children are dealing with such heavy hearts and heavy minds, they need our support as well. It Gets Better is not support, it is a denial of support.
Growing up, I was the only openly queer kid in my middle school and high school. In middle school, it was a simple stated fact that anyone who was my friend was also queer. Why else would they be my friend? In high school, I was verbally and physically assaulted for being queer, while my school staff sat by and did nothing. I was struggling with mental illness, sexuality, and gender. I was a torrent of raging emotions, hormones, depression, anger, and helplessness. There was not GSA in my school. There were a few supportive staff, but no one openly vocal. The worst place was the locker rooms, where I was constantly shunned by others mixed with the deep lurking feeling of not belonging.
Despite this, I was out and I was damn proud of it. I did not let others tell me who I was. I wore buttons and pins. I openly professed my girlfriends, boyfriends, and partners. When people asked me what I was, the answer was often just as ambiguous. I was a budding and growing queer and trans* child. I had no idea who or what I was, I just knew I was not what everyone tried to tell me I was. I was not destined to be straight. I was not destined to fit into the boxes of a binary.
Looking back, there was no support from me from others. There was no community, nothing. I braved that torrent of hellfire with the love of my friends and their support alone. I looked at the It Gets Better campaign and I scoffed. Make It Better. We are being failed. I could not imagine the life of someone who was not as fortunate to have supportive friends like I did. While my world was hostile, it could have been so much worse. Even still, years later after my darkest days (that I nearly succumbed to) we are failing our children. We are failing those we are trying to change the world for. We are ignoring their strength in exchange for promises we cannot necessarily keep. We are telling our children It Gets Better while ignoring that we need to MAKE it better for that to happen.
Day of Silence is another attempt to bring light to the issue that queer youth face. Once again, these youth are expected to remain silent, along with their allies, in order to bring attention to the issues of queer youth, particularly bullying. However, they request more silence that is already used by peers and school staff in order to do this. It assumes a supportive environment in which students are able to be silent and then open up discussions with it. It ignores the fact that the places students can WILLINGLY be silent are the usually not exactly the schools that need Day of Silence.
We are encouraging our queer youth to be silent. We are telling them to endure and ignore, hope it gets better after school. Instead of making their environments safer, listening to their needs, we are telling them what they need. We are telling them that they need to be complacent and not to make too much noise. Don’t rock the boat. Wait it out. What kind of message does this send? Your voice does not matter because you are young? I see more focus on marriage equality from Gay Inc. than I ever do on the youth who need us.
Our children need us and we need them. Queer children are still dying and they are still suffering, whether they are out or not. We need to make a world where there is no risk for them to be open during their most vulnerable times. We need to make sure their existence is not a risk, in any regard. Not a risk to their friendships. Not a risk to their family. Not a risk to their education. And not a risk to their right to live. Instead of telling our children to buckle down and suffer, we need them to fight. We are nothing without them. We need to support and praise them like we do no other, for these are daunting times. If we struggle with ourselves as adults, imagine the struggle our youth are currently facing. We need to stop failing them, for without them, there is no future. There is no better. There is nothing.