Queer kids take their own lives all the time. For some reason last fall the media took notice and focused on the suicide of nine teenagers.
In response sex columnist Dan Savage, with partner Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project (IGB), a viral video intervention reaching out to bullied lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids through computer screens. Using their own lives as examples, Savage and Miller aimed to convince young queers that regardless of their current situations, their lives could improve – that one day they too could be successful. The project caught on. Everyone from small town hairdressers to Hilary Clinton posted a message. People breathed a sigh of relief – the kids would be alright.
Not everyone was a fan. For queer theorist Jasbir Puar, the best part of the campaign was “the many [who] have chimed in to explain how and why it doesn’t just get better”. Writing for the UK’s Guardian newspaper last November, Puar pointed out the narrow ways in which the project defines ‘better’ – monied, upwardly mobile, white, able-bodied, gender conforming, wrapped up in capitalism, and maintaining the status quo. Critics of the campaign asked – does it get better for those who can’t or don’t want to fit in? What about those who want better than better?
I thought about these questions while reading the new memoir Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, the literary debut of New York performing sensation Mx. Justin Vivian Bond. In the book published by Feminist Press, Bond recounts what it was to be a queer kid with a fluid sense of gender, coming of age in the suburbs of America between Vietnam and AIDS. Like any good memoir, it’s not just the story of the Bond but also those around v (“V” is Bond’s preferred, gender-free pronoun).
Early on in the book we learn that a man named Michael Hunter, a boy Bond grew up with and had an ongoing sexual relationship with, gets arrested for impersonating a police officer. Without hitting the reader over the head, Bond sets the stage; here are two babies raised as boys. One would go on to become a legendary gender bending Tony nominated performance artist (Bond). The other would end up arrested for a failed attempt to embody our culture’s idea of the masculine (Hunter).
Born a few decades later, Hunter and Bond would have been the prime target audience for IGB. Instead they had each other, a few close girlfriends (in Bond’s case), and a cast of adults that didn’t know what to do with children that were different. When Bond’s Mom discovers the grade-school Justin wearing her lipstick she shouts “Boys don’t wear lipstick” raising the ire of young Justin who understands already such simple labeling does not apply.
A few years later, feeling conflicted after fooling around with boys at camp (including Michael Hunter’s brother) Justin confides in v’s Mom. Mistake. She called the other boys’ parents, and insisted they come over to talk about it. The parental tête-à-tête was not for the sake of the boys but, as Bond realizes later, was for Bond’s mom to assert “she was, in fact, a good mother.” When Justin’s Dad learned about the camp adventures he shared with Justin that, “curiosity was normal, and that even though I should never do it again, it was over and I shouldn’t feel bad.” Feeling relieved Justin left the house thinking, “I wasn’t going to hell after all. I was just a normal boy who had done something that lots of kids do.”
“But then I turned the corner…” One of the named boys was there and promised Justin that from here on in life was going to be hell. It wasn’t over, Justin was soon to be known as the local “cocksucker” – gossip spread by parents and kids alike.
A few years later living up to the reputation, Justin was caught giving head to a broken legged Michael by his mother Ms. Hunter. Not wanting to get summoned by Mrs. Bond again, she demanded Justin go home and tell her what happened, “and you tell her that this time it was your fault, you sick freak!” By then, Bond knew better, aware to stay safe secrets needed to be kept from adults who could not handle the truth.
But what about Michael sitting there with his busted leg and his aching teenage penis unable to escape his mother’s glare? As the book draws to an end we learn Hunter has had many problems, spending much of his adulthood trying to win over the approval of others. Bond on the other hand, rebelled from suburbia, took Justin’s life and has been giving the world Mx Bond ever since.
The take away from Hunter and Bond’s stories is not, as one might assume, how hard it is to grow up queer in America. Or even what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Rather Bond’s memoir illustrates how much harder adults can make life for queer children, often while trying to make life better.
Tango gets to the heart of what It Gets Better fails to understand – you cannot have well-adjusted children if you have fucked up adults. From Justin’s parents, to Michael’s mother we encounter adults who are unwilling to see their kids for who they are. Confronted by their children, the parents abuse their power. Instead of taking on the tension, they work to instill the culture’s heterosexist and uncritical idea of normal into their kid’s minds. It’s not that the Bond’s or the Hunter’s are bad parents – it’s that they didn’t know better.
It Gets Better functions the same way. Each video can be seen as a how-to-guide for young queers coming up, or as a catalog of all the ways adults have learned to struggle to survive. The question is not just for whom does it get better – but how, why and at what cost?
While it might seem unfair to criticize IGB for all the good it has engendered, those it fails deserve more. As adults getting out of the way and working on our shit, while trying to create support for generations to come seems like the best we can do. Along the way we can share our visions, and help each other make them come true. Bond ends Tango with a future I think many of us are be happy to be working towards,
“I do hope that a time will come when queer children can be themselves without any questions, able to experience the same dramas, heartaches and joys that any other kids would have to go through, no more and no less.”