April 20, 2018

ALA Annual 2011: Opening Session Speaker Dan Savage Says “It Gets Better” is About Access and Information

Dan Savage has made a career of speaking his mind. His Savage Love column and weekly podcast have brought sane sex and relationship advice to millions, a kind of pop cultural counterpart to the Go Ask Alice resource beloved by high school and college librarians everywhere. He got the chance to speak his mind again to thousands of librarian fans Friday as the opening general session speaker at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans.

Savage’s (left) most recent project is the It Gets Better campaign, started on YouTube in response the 2010 suicide of 15-year-old Indiana teen, Billy Lucas, who was bullied for “his perceived sexual orientation,” and others like him. Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, filmed an initial video emphasizing how much their lives have improved since they were teens (see below). The concept exploded, and has been emulated in some additional 23,000 other videos, including celebrity contributions from President Barack Obama, Tim Gunn, Sarah Silverman, and most recently with 35 children’s book authors and illustrators.

Tailoring his message to an ALA audience, Savage connected his It Gets Better campaign to the mission of libraries: “Librarians get what It Gets Better is really about-it’s about information, and access to that information.”

The premise, he said, is that if bullied students had more access to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) role models through these videos, they’d find the hope that the adults in their lives might not be able to provide. Savage says the problem is the same, whether it’s a lack of LGBT presence in the community, the emotional toll brought on by disapproving parents, being “bullied from the pulpit,” or getting rejected for any variety of other reasons.

“Adult LGBT life: that’s the information [kids] are denied access to,” he said.

Why has Savage published the book, It Gets Better (Dutton, 2011), which includes some stories from the videos?

Savage playfully pandered, saying, “I’m a print guy, and I think books are magic.” But he added a very real and sobering message: not all kids can risk getting caught with an incriminating browser history, nor do many kids have access to YouTube at school.

The book is for them, Savage said, and challenged school librarians to put it on the shelves where kids in need might find it and “read it surreptitiously, if that’s what they need to do at that point in their lives.”

Here again, Savage linked the subversive quality of his YouTube and book project to the knowledge dissemination mission of libraries. It puts LGBT adults in touch-if indirectly-with the LGBT youth who need to hear their messages.

Moreover, it puts the onus on adults to be proactive, Savage added. LGBT adults no longer have to fear speaking directly to kids for fear of antagonistic parents, or being called a pedophile or a recruiter to the ranks of homosexuality. These adults are “no longer waiting for permission that wasn’t coming,” he said, and they’re talking to them whether their parents are okay with it or not.

Savage choked up in his concluding comments, which brought many in the audience to tears. It was a story about a girl who found comfort in the videos but was forced to watch them on her phone under the covers in her room to escape the harshly disapproving eye of her parents.

“Not only are we talking to this kid, we’re in her bed,” Savage said. “All 20,000 of us. And we’re giving her hope.”

Josh Hadro About Josh Hadro

Josh Hadro (@hadro on Twitter) is the former Executive Editor of Library Journal.