Does it get better?
By Derek Newman-Stille
I find myself uncomfortable when I find so many materials directed at queer youth that tells them “it gets better”. I have been sorting through my feelings about this for a while, considering why that phrase makes me uncomfortable.
The first issue I have with that phrase is that, no, it doesn’t always get better. Putting all of one’s hope into the future without substantively doing things to create that future isn’t going to make it a reality. We queer folks always exist in precarity, and our rights (including basic rights) are always matters of political debate. We can’t just passively hope that things will get better because others are actively working to make things worse for the queer community. We need to actively work to change things, to get involved in countering homophobic, transphobic and queerphobic ideologies. By saying “it gets better”, we put ourselves into a passive state of assuming that the future will work out for us instead of constructing the future we want and need.
Secondly, I think telling queer kids “it gets better” obfuscates their experiences reality and tells them that rather than DOING something to make their lives better, we are asking them to wait, to survive torture, violence, and humiliation until they become adults on the promise that something might change by then. As adults, we have a responsibility not just to tell young people that things will get better, but instead to fight to make things better for them, to try to transform the system that oppresses them. By telling them “it gets better”, we are sending a message that we don’t care what is happening to them in this critical moment and that we aren’t willing to act to protect them at this time. It is a way of saying “don’t worry, somehow things will work out later”. For a youth that is in crisis, a substanceless promise of a future where things improve isn’t helpful. For youth, their moments of crisis ARE crises – they are life and death, they are immediate, and the stakes are high. Youth may not be able to wait for change to happen. They need change immediately.
Thirdly, “it gets better” is an assertion of adultist privilege. It tells youth that things will improve when they are adults, that the solution to their concerns are ageing. Youth are regularly denied authority and power over their own lives and are systemically silenced by an adult population that doesn’t recognize our own privilege in being able to tell youth what we think is “good for them”. We often don’t acknowledge our assumptions when we determine what is “good for them”, deciding that we are arbiters of knowledge and youth are receptacles and passive in the act of knowledge reception. Adults frequently don’t acknowledge the power they have over youth lives much like other people in hegemonic positions of authority and we don’t think about the implications of that power imbalance when we make decisions. Youth are fundamentally aware of their subordinate power position to adults. They are aware that they don’t have the same access to resources and the power that adults have. So, telling youth “it gets better” is already telling them something that they know – as an adult, you will have access to more power and then at least one of the oppressions (adultism) will not affect you.
It is important to consider the power of adults over the lives of queer youth because they are dependent on adults. I want to bring attention, for example, to the number of queer youth who are kicked out of their homes by adults, the number of queer youth that experience violence in their homes or foster homes, the number of queer youth that aren’t adopted because of systemic homophobia and transphobia , and the vast number of youth who have to devise their own means of living in a queerphobic world. The implications of adult power on queer youth are matters of survival. Telling youth “it gets better” ignores their immediate needs for survival, the critical moments that are occurring NOW in their lives. It’s not something we can be passive about. We need to give youth access to resources that support them immediately, not in an imagined future where things improve.
“It gets better” amounts to “don’t worry, you’ll understand when you are older”, which, from what I remember when I was a young person just made me frustrated at the lack of knowledge and motivated to find out on my own (which normally meant partial knowledge that didn’t help). It also made me feel incomplete and aware of the continued power imbalance.
We can’t just tell youth “it gets better”, we need to work with them to MAKE it better… because this is, literally, a matter of survival.