How does It Get Better, exactly?By: Andrew S
On Facebook, I’ve been linked several times to the BYU student group USGA (Understanding Same-Gender Attraction)’s contribution to the It Gets Better video project. Despite that, I haven’t seen too many blogs formally discussing the video. Nevertheless, from less-formal Facebook conversations primarily between Mormons and from forum discussions elsewhere primarily between non-Mormon, people seem to like the video and its message. Perhaps this could become the sign that the church and BYU have truly overcome sordid pasts on the homosexuality front? Not only that, but this is a grassroots message (Neither videographer Kendall Wilcox or the previously mentioned USGA are official representatives of the church), so even better!
Here’s the video:
However, if you read my personal blog, you should already know that I’m not quite so sure this video is all that positive.
I haven’t seen every It Gets Better video that has ever been made, but I would be willing to guess that most of them don’t begin with a person who, if he’s “going to be authentic”, can’t say that it gets better. And I mean…yeah, I know…people can’t know the future, much less the futures of other people, so in some ways, it’s just intellectual humility to say that you can’t know if it’ll get better for random youtube watcher. But the last line for that individual (near the end of the video) is his saying that he hopes it gets better.
It hasn’t gotten better yet for him.
That troubling message made me ask what it means for things to “get better.”
My guesses are that it means something slightly different for the active, faithful, believing BYU students than it might for the average viewer or producer of an It Gets Better video.
Some things that I think all of them share in common:
- It gets better because the jerks drop out of your life. (Think of how bullying works for most kids…the unpopular, nerdy, geeky, or awkward children are preyed upon by more popular, jock types. But after high school, the unpopular nerds become successful engineers/doctors/lawyers, while the popular jocks get a beer gut. [No offense to athletes.] I’d venture that the stereotype of gay people as being creative and successful has something to it…if at the very least the fact that good art requires suffering.)
- It gets better because you also become better able to tune out haters. (I’m not saying to blame the victims, but I can say that when I was a teenager, I cared a whole lot more than I ever should have about what other people thought of me. As a part of maturation, I learned to stop caring as much. So even though I definitely have people who don’t exactly like me, I’m in my zone and they are in their zone. But I had to live long enough to grow up enough to put this in perspective.)
- It gets better because you find people who like you for you and who don’t think a fundamental part of you is broken. (To continue the nerd analogy: you go to a comic convention, or find a set of friends to cosplay as Game of Thrones characters to Ren Fest with).
That being said, I think that there is another hope in most of the It Gets Better series that probably diverges from what faithful gay and lesbian Mormons can hope for: it gets better because one day, you may find the someone with whom you share your life, your joys and your sorrows.
The problem here isn’t necessarily that the church frowns upon gay relationships. I think there are religious traditions that place a high institutional value on celibacy for certain of its members and provides them with important theological roles. The problem is that the LDS church isn’t one of those religious traditions. Marriage and family is a Really Big Deal in Mormonism, so the extent that one is single is always a less-than-ideal situation that should be rectified. Young men should not put off marriage.
I think that sometimes, people like to analogize. Gay and lesbian members aren’t the only ones who may find themselves without companionship, after all. Nevertheless, the approach toward the (perpetually?) single member is one of pity. It’s just too bad they aren’t married. And we could have so many posts on just that, but still, I digress…
…One Mormon blog post that I saw that addressed this video was that of (Gay) Mormon Guy’s. As he has noted, he edited his post, but I’ll try to summarize some of the before and after.
Before the edit, he had reservations against the video. (Many of the comments on the page were written before his edit, so they can still capture why he and others had reservations against the video):
I guess I should include at least part of the original post to put comments in perspective. I felt uneasy that the movie didn’t make the distinction between having same-sex attraction and acting on those feelings… and that is the point around which the controversy broils. I, the Church, and most of us are extremely clear in the understanding that keeping the commandments will bring happiness, no matter what temptations you are overcoming. But sinning doesn’t bring happiness.
Where people are departing (and trying to determine the background or goal of the video) is on the face – are they supporting the Church or supporting activities that go against it?
Honestly? I don’t know. I haven’t met the members of USGA and doubt I will. I don’t know what they’re trying to teach or promote. But if I ever do meet them, I’ll definitely suggest that they make it clear what the Church’s doctrines are… whether or not they support them on an individual basis.
Now, however, Mormon Guy enjoys the video. In his modified post, he writes why:
The video wasn’t designed to teach the world about what Mormons believe about same-sex attraction. It wasn’t designed to reaffirm members who wonder about those same beliefs. It was created for one sole purpose – a purpose that matches the reason I began writing (Gay) Mormon Guy – to reach out and help those who are struggling inside the Church… and to help them realize that, if you can make it past the hardest years, it really does get better. Life isn’t over. You can have faith that life will go on, you can find happiness, follow your dreams, and… whatever else you want to make of your life.
That’s why there isn’t a distinction or any doctrinal teaching in the video… because it is designed only for the people who already know. It speaks to them, and even if everyone else doesn’t understand, it still speaks to their hearts. Yes, there is a distinction between living the gospel and breaking it – and that’s where the video lays. Staying in the Church, staying in life, staying on BYU campus, it gets better, and staying in the Church or on campus means staying morally clean.
For those of us “who already know,” as Mormon Guy describes, what we know is that the video doesn’t have to make any distinction between whether it’s OK to be gay (e.g., attracted to the same sex) and whether it’s OK to be gay (e.g., engaged in relationships with those of the same sex)…because those who already know know that it “getting better” means staying morally clean. Celibate and companionless.
Is that the message non-Mormons are getting?
As I mentioned earlier, I noticed that both Mormons (like Mormon Guy) and non-Mormons liked the video…but did they like it for the same reason?
After I made some comments to clue people in that things “getting better” for these students might simply be their acceptance of a life of celibacy, others commented:
I have to say, when I watched this video it didn’t occur to me that the definition of “better” could include lifelong celibacy. That would put it in somewhat of a different light.
Thinking about the video in retrospect, it’s striking what wasn’t said. No one said anything about having a family, getting married, raising children. No one said anything about boyfriends or girlfriends. No one said anything about having their family accept their same-sex life partner.
They just dodged the whole question of what it means to get better. How does it get better? They don’t say. I feel like I’ve been conned.
How very strange. At a certain level it’s an awesome exercise in sending two entirely different messages to two different groups of people. That filmmaker should go into politics.
What struck me was how naturally each audience assumed certain things, and only questioned those assumptions later in the conversation. When they watched the video again, they realized that the assumptions they had made were never explicated. And, given later comments by BYU administrators (that really just restate what we already know about BYU Honor Code policy), we can’t comfortably assume these things at all. No one said anything about having their family accept their same-sex life partner because that’s not in the plan.
…but what struck me about the second commenter’s comment was his comment that he felt the video was an exercise in “sending two entirely different messages to two different groups of people.”
For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that the video is a “con.” I don’t think that Kendall Wilcox should go into politics (I mean…unless he wants to?). But I do think that the idea of coded language that is meant to be taken one way by insider Mormons than it is by non-Mormons is something that has a long tradition in the church.
At the most critical end, you can see disaffected and post-Mormons decrying “lying for the Lord.” But even faithful Mormons have discussed whether Gordon B. Hinckley was downplaying deification or if he was just carefully constructing his answers, keeping in mind a listening public that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for nuance.
In some ways, it makes sense. For many LDS beliefs, it would take a long time to appropriately explain the foundations and reasons behind those beliefs. The problem is that in the meanwhile, the snapshot that people can get will be distorted. (And consequently, church critics throw out distorted soundbites whenever they can.) But just as well, even if the church is able to explain some positions, the fact is that these positions will be unpopular with some people. Liberal progressive folks aren’t going to be too fond of the church’s position on homosexuality, regardless of if they hear the nuance that the church finds same-sex attraction to be morally neutral (it’s just acting on those attractions that is considered sin.)
So, at some point, it’s best not to address that issue at all.
The same thing, ultimately, applies for the USGA group and BYU. Perhaps some of these students do look forward to relationships in the future…but the fact is that BYU isn’t going to be too fond of these relationships regardless of any nuance the students might put to it (e.g., they are still committed, etc.,) So it’s best not to address that issue at all.
Questions for Today:
- What do you think of the BYU It Gets Better video? If you like it, why? If not, why not?
- From the video, what were your thoughts regarding the students’ positions on gay relationships?
- Could they or should they have been more forthright about that position, or would it simply have brought undue backlash and hurt their message?