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(Jason Logan)
(Jason Logan)

Viral

Trust the Web: It Gets Better Add to ...

It Gets Better just gets bigger.

In late September, rattled by the suicides of a series of gay teens, author and advice columnist Dan Savage had a thought: "I wish I could've talked to him for five minutes; I wish I could've told him that it gets better."

It didn't take him long to realize that, in fact, he could. He set up a YouTube channel and posted a video in which both he and his long-term boyfriend, sitting behind a table in a café, discussed their experiences of growing up, and how much better life became after they'd run the gauntlet of high school. Then they invited everyone to do the same.

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In the month since then, what started as a personal plea from an advice columnist has become a full-blown political movement.

A remarkable thing is happening here. Online phenomena are often derided as flashes in the pan that rattle around online without having real-world impact. But here, a viral video project has enabled a political conversation at the highest levels - and in a country that sorely needs it.

At last count, It Gets Better had attracted more than 3,000 entries. Mr. Savage's video was followed by thousands of others, from women and men, from the transgendered and the straight. An episcopal clergyman from Richmond, Va., telling young people that God loves them "just the way they are." A city councillor in Fort Worth, Tex., tearfully describing how his cowboy father came to accept him. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty taking to Twitter to urge citizens to "stand up against bullying and support our gay children."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her own video.

Finally, five weeks after Dan Savage sat down in a restaurant, President Barack Obama himself sat down in front of a video camera and delivered a three-minute appeal. "I don't know what it's like to be picked on for being gay," he said. "But I do know what it's like to grow up feeling that sometimes you don't belong. It's tough."

Even by the loose standards of things-that-go-viral, this is noteworthy. It is not terrifically easy to get the President of the United States to contribute to your viral video project. The man is busy. He has some unfinished business with the global economy; he's trying to keep his party from being thrashed in next month's elections, and he probably spends at least some time fiddling with the launch codes. Yet there he was.

The fact that this project has gone from grassroots (or as grassroots as you can be if, like Mr. Savage, you're an enormously popular relationship-advice columnist) to something the Oval Office deems politically expedient is extraordinary.

First, it's a testament to the project's universality. Put aside the question of homophobia for a moment. Who hasn't, at some point, wanted to deliver a message-in-a-bottle to their younger selves? Who hasn't wanted the reassurance that the trial of adolescence will eventually end? (Never mind youth being wasted on the young: The years that are the hardest are the ones that drag on the longest.)

One of the most refreshing things about the project is how unmanipulative it is. There's plenty of emotion in tales of harassment, repression, redemption and acceptance. But, by definition, this is a bunch of people talking about how happy they are now. That's the kind of sentiment it's easy to get behind.

More importantly, the project arrived at the right moment in North American life. It Gets Better comes at a time when homophobia - like many forms of nativism and xenophobia - is enjoying a period of acceptance in the United States.

The U.S. media still give credibility to the kind of people who put the word "gay" in quotation marks. America is so great, so wild-eyed, that it's not just debating gay marriage; it's simultaneously asking itself whether it's all right to be gay at all. Voices that comfortable urban liberals, gay and straight, once wrote off as hopeless fringe elements are coming to dominate U.S. politics.

Just two weeks ago, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for governor in New York, a nasty piece of work named Carl Paladino, delivered a major speech urging that children not be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is a ... valid and successful option." Mr. Paladino was pressed into backpedalling, but the fact remains: This is where their national conversation is at these days.

This is the moment at which It Gets Better has entered the stage. And that might be why a project whose audience was meant to be a group of voiceless, at-risk youth has instead found itself on the national agenda, giving leaders a framework for action. It's become a bridge between the experiences of citizens and the national dialogue, from a teen's darkened bedroom to the legislature.

It also shows us that online activism doesn't always stay online. When a groundswell of citizens embraces a cause, it gives leaders an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and provides them with a time, and a reason, to speak out. It's a framework for taking a stand, and that stand comes none too soon.

 

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