On an evening when New York state legislators passed a historic marriage equality bill, librarians at the American Library Association annual conference were entertained, moved, and captivated by the conference's opening keynote speaker, Dan Savage, syndicated columnist and co-creator with his husband, Terry Miller, of the "It Gets Better" viral video campaign. Alluding to the pending vote in New York, Savage, who married Miller in Canada, referred to him as "my boyfriend in New York," and said that while the couple was "enjoying the premarital sex," drawing laughter from the audience, he was looking forward to later joining Miller, who was in New York, as his husband. Soon after, the New York Legislature voted to recognize same sex marriages.
Savage's sense of humor was on display throughout, as he talked about his famous campaign, which grew from his initial video to thousands, including videos from celebrities, politicians, president Obama among them, a host of authors and librarians, and even major professional sports teams. Within a week, Savage and Miller, who had put the video up on a personal YouTube account, had hit the 650 video maximum on YouTube, and were contemplating how to set up a website when a Google engineer randomly emailed them, expanding their hosting privileges. At one point, he noted, the emails were coming so fast they were cascading down the monitor like a snowy TV screen.
It wasn't easy. Savage quipped that the couple's first attempt at the video would have made kids suicidal, as it focused on the bullying Savage and Miller also received. But they soon found their voice. The 46 year-old Savage, raised Catholic, told the audience that when he came out to his parents when he was 16, beyond the "tortured images," he was in essence telling them that he was doomed to a marginal life. That he would never marry, never have children, and would never be a marine. Today, he is married, a father, and not only successful, but a role model, and he can even join the military, proof that things not only get better, but "can be great."
Savage likened his video campaign to the work of librarians,who are dedicated to information and offering access to that information. He praised librarians for offering the kinds of books that can help kids struggling with their sexuality, being bullied by classmates, rejected by their families and their churches, and portrayed libraries as a safe haven for many kids. As for why he turned his Internet-based effort into a book (published by Dutton in March) Savage drew applause, telling librarians "I'm a print guy, and books are magic."
But he struck a more serious tone later, noting that not all kids have access to the Internet, and not all kids can "risk leaving an incriminating Internet history behind." He spoke of how the "gay books" tend to move around the library, picked off the shelves by kids who read them and leave them in remote sections of the library, where they won't be seen. Savage said he wanted the It Gets Better effort to be found by that kid in the library, so he challenged people to buy the book and donate it to school libraries. So far, more than 1500 copies have been donated.
Above all, however, Savage emphasized the "subversiveness" of the campaign. A frequent speaker on college campuses "as an antidote to abstinence speeches," Savage said one day he thought he needed to give these talks at middle schools, but that he would never get that permission. And then it dawned on him: in the YouTube era, he didn't need permission. Savage said the It Gets Better campaign "broke the old deal," where gay people were not allowed to talk about sexuality with young people without being accused of some kind of abuse, or immoral purpose, a tradition that made gay or "questioning" kids eight times more likely to take their own lives.
Savage choked up as he told a final anecdote about emails from a young girl who, after trying to come out and being rejected by her parents, recanted, and said she was in fact straight. "Up on the wall went the Justin Bieber poster," he quipped. But at night, under her covers, she was watching the It Gets Better Videos. "We were right there in her bed with her," Savage said, "giving her hope." But, he added, the videos were also helping the parents that rejected her, because the videos were not only helping the young girl to understand and love herself, but also to love her disapproving parents, and to understand them. "Someday," Savage added, "you will thanks us."