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Interview: Video Campaign ‘Is Really Just About Offering Hope To Young People’

"I'm optimistic that there are definitely aspects of what we have done that can translate everywhere," says Seth Levy, shown here during a visit to RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague.
"I'm optimistic that there are definitely aspects of what we have done that can translate everywhere," says Seth Levy, shown here during a visit to RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague.
It’s been less than three years since the It Gets Better video campaign was launched in the United States to offer support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide. Since then, more than 50,000 video testimonials have been posted online and the campaign has gone global, with affiliates in nearly a dozen countries. RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar spoke to Seth Levy, the president of the It Gets Better project.

RFE/RL: How did It Gets Better get started?

Seth Levy:
The project began in September 2010 when a first It Gets Better video went up from Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller. They wanted to share a message of hope with LGBT young people largely as a response to what was being widely reported in the media about a number of LGBT young people who had taken their own lives.

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. Very often the adults or the other role models that an LGBT young person might look up to aren't around, they’re not visible, because when LGBT youth grow up to be LGBT adults, they tend to leave for New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles and other places. They're not there in the home, they're not around in the school, they're not in the smaller communities where LGBT youth are.

So the idea was to use the Internet, YouTube, and other technology to allow LGBT adults or their allies to share messages of hope with LGBT youth who weren't otherwise hearing these messages and thereby hopefully stem the tide of suicide and bullying and other issues.

The first video is just Dan and Terry, talking to the camera about really the life they're living today. They both struggled with things growing up, as we all do. Some of those things were related to being gay, some things were just because it's tough being a young person. But the point of their video was to help show young people that it does get better. This was sort of what they wished an adult had been there to tell them 20 or 30 years ago, when they were young kids struggling with all those things.

RFE/RL: How did you get from that single video into a full-fledged campaign?

The hope was that maybe a few other people would make videos, just being inspired by the first one or wanting to share their own stories. But this was truly the magic of the Internet doing what the Internet can do when something very positive happens. The video went viral and people just began sharing their stories. These very personal accounts of their lives, joys and struggles, it was sort of a mass cathartic moments. The U.S. project now has well over 50,000 videos.

RFE/RL: An impressive number of celebrities and politicians have contributed videos to It Gets Better. How does that contributed to momentum?

It's had an important political effect. They're also very visible. So when President Obama made a video, when British Prime Minister David Cameron made a video, when Bishop Desmond Tutu made a video, these were very significant moments for us as an organization.

But I think the ones to me that are most powerful really are the ones that aren't by people you would know. It's by everyday people. 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. And these are often workplace environments that are not the friendliest for gay people.

The videos from young people, talking about where they are today, are always so touching. And some of the most powerful messages are from people who say, “You know what, it doesn't get better, but you get stronger.” It’s important to hear this.

RFE/RL: When did IGB start thinking about going global?

It didn't take long before videos were coming in from all over the world. At first, it was mainly the English-speaking world – the U.K., Canada, etc. It was exciting to see some of those voices joining the chorus, but we were barely keeping up with all the enthusiasm and excitement in the U.S., so the idea of doing anything substantial overseas just wasn't possible at the time.

Then we began hearing from a number of people in Sweden that there was another organization that had begun using the It Gets Better brand in Swedish to support their own efforts. This was not an LGBT organization -- it was a good organization, but not one which supports the sorts of things that we do. We thought, if we're actually going to protect this brand and have it for some kind of global movement, then we need to address these things early on. Over the course of a number of months, we were thankfully able to resolve it, and it left us with nice, strong trademark rights around It Gets Better in Europe. It also led to the founding of our first international affiliate in Sweden.

A very important component of our international work is that this is not a U.S.-based organization that wants to bring our specific way of doing things to other parts of the world. This is instead a very young U.S. organization that's had some interesting experiences over the last few years and has some tools that have proven to be very powerful.

So when we talk with people in other parts of the world who have a vision for how to make things better for LGBT young people, they can use our tools, and in doing that we've begun launching international affiliates which are grassroots efforts organized under the banner of It Gets Better. We've launched about a dozen. (Editor’s note: There are official IGB affiliates in Australia, Chile, Denmark, Italy, Paraguay, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Affiliates are also in the process of being launched in Jamaica and Mexico.)

RFE/RL: And now you’re moving into Eastern Europe. How do you choose the countries you work with?

We try to start the affiliate program in countries that we either had a personal connection with or at least viewed as easier to start in. There are places that are very violent for LGBT people, places where the laws are really terrible, and we wanted to get the hang of doing an affiliate program before we took on some of those challenges. Some of them also really beg for a different model than an online video project, where having LGBT people come out and share their stories might be quite dangerous. So we've really put a lot of thought into how to do this.

We are in active conversations in Moldova, I'm excited to say. There's a wonderful video program that started there a few months ago, and we're now talking about how we can work together and bring them under the IGB banner. I hope that we’ll be able to have that finalized in the next few weeks so we can officially announce an affiliation there. There's likely to be an affiliate in Austria soon. And we'll see where we go from there.

RFE/RL: What particular challenges has IGB faced as it’s gone global?

Oddly enough, we've faced very little resistance. I think one of the things that's been so successful about IGB is that it doesn't tend to provoke that very negative reaction that you've seen with other LGBT movements. Because at its core, this is really just about offering hope to young people. And however people might feel about other issues in the LGBT universe -- whether it’s marriage equality or gays in the military -- one of the areas where people can really find some common ground is that there are very few people who are pro-suicide of LGBT young people.

RFE/RL: Do you envision a time when IGB can work everywhere?

I'm optimistic that there are definitely aspects of what we have done that can translate everywhere. One of the countries where we’re in the process of launching an affiliate is Jamaica. Jamaica is a place that is rather terrible for LGBT people and where there’s a lot of violence. So it’s sort of a first step for us towards dealing with these kinds of countries. It’s already led to a lot of discussions of different ways to take this on.

There are definitely countries that we're thinking about. We have had some approaches from Russia. I think it would be great to explore things there. It's really largely a matter of time and resources. Our organization is a group of only about six or seven people. But 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 are a lot of LGBT young people that are really struggling through some rather awful legal issues in Russia right now.

RFE/RL: IGB is not even three years old, but it comes at a time of incredible change, at least in the United States, in terms of LGBT rights. Do you think your campaign has contributed to softening public opinion on issues like gay marriage?

We have the U.S. Supreme Court in the middle of deciding two very important cases about marriage equality in the United States. I don't think it is even a remote question that were it not for the story of couples who are struggling because of the discrimination they're facing, public opinion would not have shifted the way it has.

It Gets Better is about sharing our stories, giving people a window into these very humdrum, mundane lives we live -- putting our shoes on in the morning just like everyone else. And I think that normalizer really takes a lot of the heat out of the otherwise vitriolic conversations we can end up hearing around some of these issues. So I'm confident that this had played a role. I think it would be a lot to say that it's the thing that's singlehandedly changed public opinion, but I'd like to think it’s been an important part of the conversation.