In 2010, the U.S. journalist and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage posted a video on YouTube in which he and his husband talked about the challenges of growing up gay.
Their aim was simple -- to send a message to American teenagers coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) that their struggles wouldn’t last forever.
“High school was bad. I was obviously gay and some kids didn't like that, and I did get harassed," he says in the video. "If there are 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds -- 13-year-olds, 12-year-olds -- out there watching this video, what I'd really like you to take away from it, really, is that it gets better.”
The video came at a time when reports were growing about LGBT teenagers committing suicide as a result of isolation and abuse.
Seth Levy, a lawyer who works with the It Gets Better project, says that first video quickly inspired a flood of similar video testimonials from gays and straights eager to lend their support.
"The philosophy is that when a young person takes his or her own life, it's because they can't see a future for themselves that's bright enough or positive enough to compensate for whatever pain they're feeling today," he says. "So the idea was using the Internet, using YouTube, using technology to allow LGBT adults or their allies to share messages of hope with young people, and thereby hopefully stem the tide of suicide and bullying and other issues."
Today, more than 50,000 It Gets Better videos have been contributed to the U.S. campaign.
Growing Up Different
Testimonials have been posted online by teachers, parents, and teenagers themselves, all sharing their personal experiences about growing up different.
Celebrities and politicians have joined in as well, including U.S. President Barack Obama.
“I don't know what it's like to be picked on for being gay," Obama says in his recording. "But I do know what it's like to grow up feeling like sometimes you don't belong. It's tough. But what I want to say is this. You are not alone.”
Levy says the participation of high-ranking figures like Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa have contributed to raising the profile of the It Gets Better campaign.
But he maintains that it’s often testimonials by ordinary people that have proven the most powerful.
"There have been a number of wonderful videos made by groups of police officers in different cities around the U.S -- the Atlanta police department, the San Francisco police department," he says. "And these are often workplace environments that are not the friendliest for gay people. But the message -- which I think is so touching -- has been that 'We're here to protect you too.'"
The It Gets Better campaign
has now gone global, with affiliates in a dozen countries ranging from Australia and Chile to Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal.
The project is soon to expand into Eastern Europe as well, with an affiliate in Moldova, where local activists have already begun filming their own series of videos in a project called “Egali,” or “equal.”
In one Nastia, a lesbian, sits next to her girlfriend as she speaks emotionally about finding love in her life.
“Even if things are bad for you today, maybe tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or in a week or two things will get better," she says. "You’ll find the person who will always support you, the person who will be at your side, no matter your orientation or profession. No matter what you look like. They’ll be with you.”
Levy says It Gets Better is still a relatively small operation, with just half a dozen employees in the United States.
But he suggests its strength lies in the fact that it’s been able to capitalize on the Internet and social media to deliver a gentle message to the mainstream that sexual minorities are normal, often ordinary, people.
It’s a message, he says, that has likely contributed to softening the debate over gay marriage at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two landmark cases on marriage equality.
Levy has indicated that he’s hopeful the campaign can someday have a similar impact in countries where the LGBT movement is facing some of its most difficult challenges.
"I'm optimistic that there are definitely aspects of what we have done that can translate anywhere," he says. "We have had some approaches from Russia. If we find the right partners, if we have the right conversations, I'd be very excited about seeing what we could do there. Because frankly there's a lot of LGBT young people that are really struggling through some rather awful legal issues in Russia right now."