One year ago, on Sept. 20, 2010, nationally syndicated sex and love columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller created the It Gets Better campaign after two gay teen males, Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas, committed suicide within two months of one another. They videotaped compassionate words of advice for bullied lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) teens, hoping that the messages of encouragement would help.
The next day, Sept. 21, 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, took a fatal leap off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi had discovered that his roommate had secretly recorded and live-streamed on the Internet a video of him having an intimate encounter with another man. Dharun Ravi, the roommate, is now on trial for multiple criminal charges relating to spying on Clementi, though he is not being held legally responsible for the death.
Clementi’s suicide bolstered the It Gets Better campaign and led to an explosive viral response. Adults both gay and straight, including many Hollywood celebrities, professional sports stars, politicians, and so on, created and posted online It Gets Better videos by the thousands, pushing the nation to change its traditional notions of bullying as just normative adolescent behavior.
While for some, like Clementi and Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old student in upstate New York who reportedly killed himself after endless taunting about his sexuality, the message of hope espoused in the It Gets Better campaign came too late or was not enough, for others, it made a difference.
MetroFocus looks at what has changed in the Tri-State area in the year since the launch of the It Gets Better campaign and Clementi’s death.
In the schools…
School districts all over the country began to seriously recognize and try to deal with the problem of cyber-bullying. “Intolerance is growing at the same time cyberspace has given every one of us an almost magical ability to invade other people’s lives,” Rutgers University Instructor Robert O’Brien told the Star-Ledger. “I think many people are finally saying enough is enough.”
- On Jan. 6, 2011, New Jersey signed into law the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” radical new legislation mandating the placement of trained anti-bullying teams and enhancing anti-bullying education in public schools. The most contested part of the law requires schools to report incidents of bullying to the police, reported the New York Times. The law went into effect at the beginning of this school year. Other municipalities nationwide are looking to see what results these experimental policies will yield; however, many school administrators complain that they don’t have the resources to enforce the law.
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NJToday interviewed Stuart Green, director of the NJ Coalition Against Bullying, about what it’s going to take to implement the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. Video courtesy of NJToday.
- In August, 2011, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy followed in New Jersey’s footsteps, signing a bill that, while it didn’t go as far as the Garden State’s, was lauded by the Anti-Defamation League for adding off-campus bullying practices, like cyber-bullying, to its list of punishable offenses, reported the Hartford Courant.
- New York Gov. David Paterson had actually signed off on the Dignity for all Students Act way back in June of 2010, before the death of Tyler Clementi and the birth of It Gets Better. Yet that law does not go into effect until the 2012 school year, reported the New York Civil Liberties Union. The law provides the state’s first protections for transgender students, and requires school districts to track and organize all reports of harassment, so that bullying can be more effectively handled by administrators, reported CNN.
- The New York City Department of Education deemed Feb. 13-17 Respect for All Week, when city schools will highlight diversity in their curriculum and explore new anti-bullying initiatives.
In the community…
- The anti-bullying message became popular among local politicians and celebrities. On Sept. 13, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn uploaded a video featuring members of the Mets directing kids to the StopBullying.gov site.
- LGBT group Garden State Equality created a 24-hour anti-bullying hotline for New Jersey teens to report bullying.
- Several long-standing anti-bullying and civil rights organizations in the Tri-State area began to receive more attention, enabling them to broaden their message to a wider public. These included some groups that were already serving the young LGBT population in the New York-area:
- Harvey Milk High School, which opened in the East Village in 2002, was designed to create a safe learning space for teens who are questioning their sexuality and gender identity and who feel too threatened by bullies to learn in their home schools.
- The Queens Community House’s Generation Q Youth Services Program provides a safe space for LGBT youth, and offers a range of workshops, support groups and advocacy training classes.
- The Urban Justice League’s Cicchino Youth Project, a drop-in center for homeless LGBT youth, offers free one-on-one counseling and legal services.
A look at how Watchung Hills Regional High School in Passaic County, NJ has dealt with cyber-bullying. Video courtesy of The Working Group.
It Seems to Have Gotten Better
One year later, it’s clear that the It Gets Better Project, boosted by the momentum from Tyler Clementi’s suicide, has played a significant role in the nation’s discourse about hate, tolerance and bullying. At the college level, things have certainly gotten better, according to the national organization Campus Pride, which gave its highest approval rating for LGBT-friendliness to twice as many colleges in 2011 as the year before.
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NJToday went to Rutgers University on the one year anniversary of Clementi’s death. Students had disparate feelings about whether acceptance of LGBT lifestyles has increased. Video courtesy of NJToday.
At the federal level, on Sept. 19, the U.S. officially repealed its “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian service members from openly serving in the military. And at the state level, New York became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage in June.
However, the fight to protect teens from dangerous bullying is far from over. The New York Civil Liberties Union’s 2011 “Bullying in New York City Schools” report showed that 66.4 percent of city teachers responding to a survey said they had witnessed biased-based harassment at their schools. And the recent apparent suicide of Rodemeyer — who had uploaded an It Gets Better video of his own — on Sept. 18 in Williamsville, N.Y., showed that more needs to be done to protect bullied teens.
Yet, inspired by the many celebrities who initiated the campaign last year, today more than 22,000 people from around the world have now uploaded their own It Gets Better videos.
The following video by actor B.D. Wong of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” is perhaps one of the most poignant uploaded, inspiring hope that the discussion about bullying will widen in scope and that greater equality will be achieved for the next generation of young people.
Actor B.D. Wong of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” contributed one of the most influential personal videos to the It Gets Better project. Wong offers proof of how much better his life has become since his adolescence, when people told him he would never be able to have a child. Youtube/wongbd.
This story is part of a series related to intolerance, discrimination, hate crimes and bullying in association with the Not Our Town initiative and documentary. The documentary will premiere on PBS on Sept. 21. Click here for local listings.