THE BLOG
12/17/2010 05:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Does it Get Better?

An Open Letter to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth of America:

Hold tight for a little while longer, kid. It gets better.

There. That's what I've got so far.

"The Huffington Post would like you to write an 'it gets better' piece," said the email I got a few weeks ago from Katie, the publicist for the new Sundance Channel series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, in which I appear (as a boy who likes boys) along with my best friend Sarah (as a girl who likes, etc.).

(To bring you up to speed, just in case: In response to the recent publicized rash of suicides by gay middle school, high school, and college students--at least eight kids dead in less than a month--author Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller filmed a terrific YouTube message to American kids who are bullied or abused or rejected or beaten up or made to feel like outsiders because of their sexuality. Savage and Miller hated their lives in high school, they explain, but the day they finished, their lives changed, immensely, for the better. They were making this video, they said, to tell you, Hold tight for a little while longer, kid. It gets better. The video obviously sparked something in the national consciousness, because, within days, thousands of people across the country were sending similar--and similarly beautiful--messages to http://itgetsbetter.org; they're sending them still.)

"Great!" I typed enthusiastically back to Katie, sat down, and started to write.

Many of the it-gets-better videos, I'd noticed, began with a recounting of the difficulties the speaker(s) faced when he or she was or they were the age Billy Lucas was when he killed himself on September 9, the age Cody J. Barker was when he killed himself on September 13 (fifteen), the age Seth Walsh was on September 19 (thirteen), the age Tyler Clementi was on September 22 (eighteen), Asher Brown on September 23 (thirteen), Harrison Chase Brown on September 25 (fifteen), Felix Sacco and Raymond Chase on September 29 (seventeen and nineteen). I knew this would not be hard. Thirteen? Fifteen? I had known I was doing something wrong from the age of six, when the Jewish Community Center summer camp counselors said I wasn't allowed to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging and stuck me in gymnastics instead, though to be fair my front handspring is even today a thing to be proud of.

Growing up, I felt like an alien from outer space, stranded on this planet with the half-finished first draft of a guidebook in a language I didn't speak.

So far, so good, I thought. I am a brilliant writer!

I was more or less okay until seventh grade, at which point things began to come apart. I didn't understand why Winslow Barnett snickered when I walked into the boys' locker room for PE wearing my purple bow tie and my fabulous bright green pants with the white piping down the side, but I knew that it was not his intention to convey approbation of my fashion sense. I didn't see why it should be cause for concern to anybody when I started writing all my in-class history exams on pink paper in green ink, with circles over the "i"s, but I didn't need to see that to interpret the look Mr. Somerville gave me when I handed them in. It was a mystery to me why my mother's face fell when I used my birthday money to buy a pair of floppy bunny ears, but I knew enough to wait until I went away to summer camp to start wearing them.

Hmm. Something seems off, I thought as I sat back and reread what I'd written. I probably need chocolate. I went to the bodega on the corner, bought some M&Ms, ate them on the way back home, and sat down at my computer again.

By the time I was fifteen I'd figured out what was really going on, so I went to the library, checked out all the books I could find on being gay, and left them on the kitchen table, which in retrospect might not have been the best way to come out to my parents but it got the job done. They nixed the green ink and the bow ties and forbad me to see the one other openly gay person I knew, a man who ran a chocolate store not far from my house and who had been playing a very effective fairy godmother to my Cinderella; when I defied them and saw him anyway, they grounded me for a year, not that I had any friends with whom I would have spent my time anyway. In the meantime school got trickier to navigate; I can't remember the name of the kid who intercepted the note I passed to Kathy Weld during first-period French about George Lindenmayer, but my face flushes still when I remember having my own lovestruck mooning quoted sneeringly back to me as I passed him and his friends in the hall for the rest of the week. They'd translated the French badly but that was cold comfort.

But it got better. It got much, much, much better.

It's not the chocolate, I realized.

The problem was that I had had it easy.

I was pretty fey, to be sure, but I never flouted gender norms in any significant way for any significant length of time, so I was never the target of constant bullying; furthermore, I went to a fancy-schmancy private school where the shoving match Kinsey Huggins got into with Chad Rawe during the break before Latin II one Tuesday was the talk of our ninth-grade class for weeks, so what bullying I was subjected to was relatively de bon ton. While Winslow Barnett's snickering and that of the kid whose name I can't remember may therefore have stabbed me to the heart, they were small potatoes compared with the bullying some of you go through every day. Nobody ever filmed me having sex without my permission and live-streamed it online. Nobody ever pulled my chair out from under me and told me to go hang myself, and I never seriously considered doing so. Nobody ever kicked me down a flight of stairs. And sure, my parents' reaction when I came out to them was ridiculous, but they were still civil rights workers; I'm sure the idea of throwing me out of the house never occurred to them, unlike the parents of many of the 40% of homeless kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. And they could no more have beaten me senseless than they could have campaigned for public office as segregationists. I had no reason to run away.

I mean, really. A few of my classmates laughed at me? A teacher thought I was weird? That was the best I could come up with? My parents overreacted to something and grounded me for an unreasonably long time?

Cry me a fucking river.

Okay, I thought, unnerved. Remember, I am a brilliant writer. I'll just leave this alone for a few days and see what my fecund brain comes up with.

"Sarah's piece was posted yesterday," Katie's next email said. "Do you know when we can expect yours?"

"I'll get it to you any day now!" I wrote back. "☺," I added, in hopes of keeping her from getting angry at me.

Why don't I just keep writing, I asked myself rhetorically, see where I end up, and then go back and fix the beginning later? "But it got better," I deleted and retyped three times. "It got much, much, much better."

I went away to college, where I felt free for the first time in my life. I did well and had a great time and made friends for whom I would even today drop whatever I was doing and fly halfway around the world if they asked and if my debit card permitted. I moved to New York and went to grad school, made some more of the same kind of friend, joined a cheerleading squad, learned to knit, taught step aerobics, danced as a go-go boy, taught math to elementary-school kids, went to gay summer camp, wrote some musicals, saw a few of them produced, wrote some books, saw a couple of them published, dated some boys, had sex with a lot more, got a dog, moved in with one of the boys, got another dog, married the boy, and somewhere along the way became myself and watched as the world made room for me.

And today, the day before Thanksgiving, as I write this on the downtown 3 train, trying to figure out what kind of pie to bake to bring to my mother-in-law's tomorrow for dinner, I look back at my 13-year-old self and am filled with gratitude that he held tight.

Hold tight for a little while longer, kid. It gets better. I promise.

And I read what I had written and I was like, oh, fuck me. I might as well have ended it, "and they all lived happily ever after."

I mean, every word of what I'd written was true, I promise you that. But there was so much I'd left out, like the couple years during my early thirties when I did want to kill myself, desperately--my fantasies went back and forth weekly between jumping in front of a subway train and overdosing on prescription medication--for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with my sexuality or anybody's response to it. Or like the heartbreak that having musicals produced and books published tends to bring one instead of making one happy, and like the fact that these enterprises have earned me less money than I would have made temping--enough less, actually, that I lie awake at night figuring out which companies and utilities are least likely to descend upon my credit rating like avenging Furies if I don't pay them this month.

And like the fact that, unlike some gay people, I've never walked into a sex club full of men fucking each other--I mean, I've walked into a sex club full of men fucking each other; Mary, please--but I've never walked into a sex club full of men fucking each other, been approached by none of them, and had to assume it was because they were white and I wasn't. And that, since both I and my body are male, I've never dated somebody who seemed like the perfect man, revealed to him that I was biologically female, and had to grab hold of a credenza so as not to be sucked into the vacuum created by his instant departure. And that, as somebody attracted only to one sex rather than to both, I've never been mocked both by straight people for liking boys and by gay people for liking girls too, and left in the end with no community at all willing to accept me. And that one night a couple months ago in New York three gay men were beaten, slashed, burned with cigarettes, and sodomized with a baseball bat and a toilet plunger; I don't know what their adolescent years were like so I can't say for sure that this wasn't a step up, but I have a hard time believing that at this moment they feel it's gotten better.

Or like the fact that much of the time I still feel like an alien from outer space, stranded on this planet with the first draft of a half-finished guidebook in a language I don't speak.

Which struck me as a lot to leave out, so I deleted the whole thing and wrote a new piece about all this and the cry-me-a-river stuff and I showed it to my friend Sarah and she was like, "You're kidding, right? This might as well be called, 'I Wish I'd Had it as Bad Off as You When I Was Your Age So I Could Have Just Killed Myself Then.' "

This seemed unwieldy as a title, so I scrapped that version too.

Which is how I find myself here, terrified that Katie will hate me because I have no idea what to write. "Maybe It Gets Better"? "It Sort of Gets Better, Unless it Doesn't"? "Congratulations! It May Already Have Gotten Better!"?

And yet I think there is something true, deeply true, in what these "it gets better" messages communicate; I think it does get better. It's just that "better" doesn't necessarily mean that the day you graduate from high school and leave your podunk town somebody is going to be waiting there to hand you a gorgeous boyfriend, a great job, and a puppy. Certainly this may happen, and if it does then please don't tell me because it will make me hate you and cry. But things are probably going to unfold a little differently. The boyfriend may prove elusive. You may get stuck in a frustrating job. You may live in a no-pets building.

But here are some things that are definitely going to happen:

First, the world is going to get bigger. Right now, the only territories you can inhabit without anybody's permission are your house and your school. If you're anywhere else--at the mall or the movie theater or the beach, whatever, I have no idea where you kids spend your time these days--you're there on the sufferance of your parents and any adults who happen to be around. Fuck up and display your real self for a moment, and the next thing you know you're sitting in front of somebody in a tie who expects you to be ashamed of yourself.

When you finish high school, you get to leave this dynamic behind. (Oh, there'll be no shortage of people in ties expecting you to be ashamed of yourself, but you can tell them to go fuck themselves, and there's no such thing as detention in real life. There's prison, of course, but usually you have to do more than tell somebody to go fuck himself to end up there.)

If you go every day to a place where idiot cretins bully you, then when you finally get sick of it you have the choice to go somewhere else instead. Somewhere else might be another job, it might be your own place in New York or some other metropolis, it might be a shelter in whatever town you can get a bus ticket to or walk to, but the point is that if life sucks where you are, you're allowed to leave.

The second thing that's going to happen is that, because the world is going to bigger, other people will stop mattering so much. Right now your entire life has forty people in it, or two hundred, or however many are in your class, plus your parents and a handful of other people. If one person is mean to you, that's a pretty large percentage of your world; if that person is popular, then probably a bunch of others follow suit, and before you know it half the people in your life hate you. If half the world is bullying you, mistreating you, ignoring you, insulting you, and abusing you, what other conclusion can you reach but that you deserve to be bullied, mistreated, ignored, insulted, and abused?

Well, when you leave high school, the population of your world increases by several billion, and, if people you spend time with are bullying you, you can recognize them as assholes and find other people to spend time with. Depending on your circumstances, you might find more or fewer of them, and they might be easier or harder to find--but no matter what they'll be the people you choose to allow into your life. If you're lucky, you'll find some wonderful close friends, as I have, but if you're not as lucky, and find yourself in a group of people who hinder you from becoming the person you want to be, you can dump them and get some new close friends, because as it turns out the planet is covered in stranded aliens, and chances are good that if you meet the right ones and put your guidebooks together with theirs you'll find some of the answers you're looking for.

But in the end, no matter where you go or who you encounter there, here's what it comes down to: when you reach eighteen, you become the only person allowed to decide anything about what you do with your life (unless, again, you are in prison, where issues of sexuality become very different). Nobody else has the right to decide where you live, who you live it with, what you do with your time. There are practical limitations to these questions, and you will face obstacles in life after high school--Tyler Clementi was a freshman in college, Raymond Chase a sophomore--but you won't need to get anybody else's permission to try to overcome them.

There's one last thing to say, which is that leaving, though it's what many if not most of us have done, isn't your only option. If the nearest town with any LGBT services is a four-hour drive away and your family has no car, or if you're caring for an ailing parent, or any of a thousand other reasons, or you just feel like staying put, the world can still get bigger--if you make it bigger. And if you're going to finish that guidebook on your own, you might as well start now.

Get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT Project (http://aclu.org/safeschools) and sue your goddamn school; there are a lot of things wrong with this country but at this moment one thing that's very right about it is that when kids like you are in trouble and nobody does anything about it and the ACLU and other LGBT rights organizations find out about it, a lot of people around the country get very upset, and often things change for the better. Or talk to somebody at Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays (http://pflag.org) about how to get your parents to support you. Or file a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights (http://community.pflag.org/claimyourrights). Or contact the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/student/index.html) and start an anti-bullying program so your pathetic Neanderthal classmates can learn that there are other ways to assuage their existential confusion and terror than by beating you up. Or all of the above, or something else that nobody has thought of yet. You have the power to make it get better, and there are a lot of people out here who are on your side, and all you need to do to get their help is ask them for it. And the great thing about asking them for it is that, with their involvement, you can help it get better not just for you but also for other kids like you.

Taking action may or may not be the right choice for you. But either way--and I think this may be what I need to give Katie--there's one thing that you can and should do, no matter who you are, no matter where, no matter what your circumstances:

Hold tight for a little while longer, kid.

It gets better.

Sincerely yours,

Joel Derfner

P.S.: If you're thinking about killing yourself or you just feel alone or want somebody to talk to, please, please, please call the Trevor Project, a 24-hour hotline just for LGBT youth, at 800.488.7386 (800-4-U-TREVOR). If you're homeless, then you've already learned much of the above, tragically early, but it can get better for you, too; there are people out here who want to help you, and you can find a list of supportive, welcoming resources for LGBT homeless youth all over the country at http://aliforneycenter.org/resources.html. And if anything I've written here speaks to you, you should go to your local public library and check out my book Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, which some LGBT kids have told me has helped them see how it can get better. If your library doesn't have it, email me at joel@joelderfner.com and I'll try to send you a copy, or, if you don't want to risk being seen holding a book with such a title, email you the manuscript.