What did we do before YouTube? I remember the day I was sitting in my office, avoiding writing, as is my job... when I received my first email linking me to a video on the site. It was one of the early ones -- some hilarious moment of a kid falling asleep into their cereal bowl, or a cat flushing its own turds in a toilet, or that jaw-dropping, tear-squirting video of the reporter falling backwards into a vat of grapes. It still makes me laugh to think about it.
These days, I find myself on YouTube as routinely as I find myself on Google or Facebook. It's become a resource, a library at my fingertips. I look up a clip of an old movie, or a video on how to fold a t-shirt (which I still can't do) or the latest send-up of Lady Gaga or Beyoncé -- just for kicks. Or, now that I have kids, I find a scene or two from season 1 of The Brady Bunch to let them watch on my iPad while I'm on the phone. What? It's classic. I don't remember how it happenedm but seemingly overnight, YouTube became a sensation -- the universal water cooler, the world's bulletin board, confessional and broadcast network.
YouTube has come to give us the power to communicate with millions of people, instantly and intimately. Nobody has proven this more effectively than Dan Savage and his "It Gets Better" campaign. After the bullying of gay teens and a string of suicides littered the headlines over a short window of time, Savage saw it as a call to action. And what more immediate platform could there have been to help inspire, empathize, educate and reassure? Let's face it, person-to-person contact doesn't stand a chance anymore against the ease, speed and scope of YouTube. But I suspect it also serves as instant support group, audience and witness.
On the day we finally put an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell, I was rewatching those soldiers stationed in Afghanistan doing their version of Lady Gaga's "Telephone." Afterwards, I came across another that stayed with me for days after: a young, Southern soldier from the South turned his camera on himself to call his father from Germany to tell him he's gay. I found myself oddly uncomfortable at such a personally intimate and emotionally fraught revelation occurring in such a public forum. But I couldn't stop watching. As the soldier kept feeling his racing heart, I found myself noticing my own. No, it wasn't just because he was cute. His coming out transported me instantly back to my own experience in a restaurant in New York City facing my parents with the disclosure that "I might be bi." OK, I wasn't quite as brave as this young man, who didn't have to come out but chose not to hide who he is the second he was given that freedom. Maybe I needed to do it on camera?
The soldier sits by a desk, a map of the world against the wall behind him. There's power and bravery in everything about his video, despite his deep breaths to calm his nerves as he dials and waits for the phone to ring. The soldier's father answers the phone. "Hey, Daddy!" he says. Immediately we fall in love with him -- so much hope and worry and affection and panic all rolled into one call. "I need to tell you something." I'm glued to my computer screen as though I were catching the season finale of Mad Men.
"Should I be watching this?" I ask myself. It feels wrong. And yet there's no way I am clicking off. Why did he do it so publicly? The young man wanted witnesses. This soldier needed to know we'd eventually be watching -- to hold him accountable, maybe? Or to help him make the call?
"I still love you, son." That's what his father says after a painful silence. How lucky for that soldier, to hear that response from his dad. How lucky for us, to get to see what the unconditional love of a father really looks like.
One video links to another, and pretty soon I find myself watching a young teen, Jamey, from Buffalo, N.Y., deliver his own "It Gets Better" video. He's only 14, still in braces. He talks of the bullying and teasing that torment him at school. He talks about his own coming out, and how great it is to have the support of friends and family. But unlike the soldier in the first video, Jamey sits alone in his bedroom, vulnerable, even shy. Also, Jamey is more obviously gay. He doesn't "pass." And as a result of being a bit more effeminate, he has taken a great deal of abuse. Nevertheless, he tries to reassure us: "It does get better," he says. But we know he's trying to convince himself, mostly. "You have to love yourself," he says. If only we believed he really did.
On Sept. 18, that same 14-year-old took his own life. I can only hope that the quiet reassurance he displayed in his video made someone out there feel a little more hopeful, less alone -- or even saved a life or two before he took his own. Maybe the act of making the video, of being so honest and generous with his own experience, gave him a sense of purpose and even comfort before he started feeling like it would be better off to die than have to put up with any more despair. Maybe his own dad told him he still loved him. But it may not have been enough. We'll never know what actually drove this young man to suicide, nor what resources were at his disposal. What we know is that he reached out to tell the world that he put his faith in the notion that "it gets better" -- and then, clearly, for him, it did not.
There's something seductive and addicting about a camera. Yes, it satisfies our narcissistic tendencies. It fills our need for grandiosity and exhibitionism. "It has to be important because it's being filmed!"
I hope that the overblown sense of importance and scope of such a public forum didn't drive him to feel like he ultimately disappointed too many people, that he was being watched by thousands and was being held accountable. I wish he'd felt safe enough to reach out for some help -- face-to-face, one-on-one -- and didn't feel like he had no other choice but to make his message of despair bigger, more public -- and finite.
My heart breaks for Jamey and for any young person out there who may watch a video and feel like they can't quite believe it'll ever "get better" soon enough to make a difference. Dan Savage is one of our contemporary heroes, for mobilizing the gay community and casting a light on what could be the greatest threat to gay youth since the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps the follow-up to the "It Gets Better" campaign is a new, more immediate campaign to make it better right now.
We can switch on our webcams and tell our message to the world, on YouTube. Or we can start small, with one-on-one contact. Encourage people to tell someone who is struggling with their sexuality that they love them no matter what. Of course, it'll never be as simple as that. But we have to start somewhere. Let's create a climate in which the only intolerance is for intolerance. Whether we post videos or show up in person to talk with students, whether we blog, post, Tweet or lobby in Washington, those of us who are gay and/or support the struggles for gay youth can help spread our message to "make it better now." Let's tell our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and co-workers what that father in Alabama told his son who dared to call him from across the world: "I still love you, son." And we do.