What if it doesn’t get better?

Popular campaign under fire after teen commits suicide

Popular online website ItGetsBetter.org is facing criticism after an Ottawa teen committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied for being gay. Dylan Hewlett

The recent suicide of openly gay Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley, and a subsequent memorial video released by members of the Conservative government, has created a firestorm of controversy around the issue of homophobic bullying.

Questions about the effectiveness of the It Gets Better project have become the crux of the debate.

ItGetsBetter.org is an online video-sharing website started in 2010 by columnist and author Dan Savage. The campaign relies on social media to give LGBTQ youth, suffering from homophobic bullying and abuse, a sense of community and hope for their future.

Yet in the wake of Hubley’s death, pundits and the public alike are meeting the project’s message of hope with criticism. 

“It’s no longer good enough for us to tell kids who are different that it’s going to get better. We have to make it better now,” said Rick Mercer, host of CBC series The Rick Mercer Report, during a recent show.

Mercer’s comments followed an It Gets Better video made by a group of Conservative MPs, in support of the campaign and out of sympathy for the teen’s grieving family.

The video has come under scrutiny for commenting on bullying in general rather than speaking out against the pertinent issue of homophobic bullying.

“Bullying isn’t unique to gay and lesbian people, it can affect everyone,”  said Conservative MP Shelly Glover (St. Boniface), who appeared in the video.

Glover also said she was “disappointed in the criticism that has come out of a campaign meant to raise awareness.”

It’s a damming indictment of the school system if all we can say is ‘Hold on - it gets better.’

Catherine Taylor, professor, University of Winnipeg

The presence of other MPs in the video, such as Vic Toews and David Sweet, who have previously defended anti-homosexual stances, has also become a point of contention for some.

Chad Smith, the executive director of Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre, was critical of the message coming from a government party that in the past has been unsupportive of gay marriages.

“They need to change the focus of their efforts to homophobic bullying,” he said. “It is about lack of acceptance surrounding LGBTQ youth, not straight bullying.”

Smith was also conflicted about the message of It Gets Better.

“I think it’s a great campaign in terms of trying to send a message of hope, but there is also the reality that it doesn’t always get better for everyone. Take Jamie Hubley for example,” he said.

Catherine Taylor, a rhetoric professor at the University of Winnipeg, voiced similar concerns.

“I’m glad that LGBTQ adults are reaching out to youth and teens,” she said. “But it’s a damming indictment of the school system if all we can say is ‘Hold on - it gets better.’”

Taylor has done extensive research on homophobic bullying in Canadian high schools and maintains the school system needs to take responsibility for the safety of its students.

While Glover, Smith and Taylor feel the It Gets Better project is a step in the right direction they all agreed that a more proactive solution is needed to end homophobia in schools.

Published in Volume 66, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 9, 2011)

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