Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Great Thing About Getting Older

It gets better.

True. But I still hate when people say that. In the last year or so, I've been hearing it way too often, usually coming from celebrities who already spend most of their lives repeating other people's words.

The serious issue of gay teen bullying can't be resolved by soundbites, slogans and pop songs like Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." They may provide solace -- and entertainment -- for some, but they're not nearly enough. Just because three words are catchy enough to provide the hook of a philanthropic campaign or the title of a No. 1 song and album doesn't mean that they're particularly useful.

The actor Zachary Quinto was wise enough to know that preaching "It gets better" wasn't enough, and to his enormous credit, he recently came out of the closet. Gay teens don't need a marketing campaign. They need strong role models offering ideas with actual content -- solutions, not sloganeering.

I know that in the case of the "It gets better" movement, the hearts of celebrities are in the right place, and the video on the It Gets Better Project website in which everyday people tell their own growing-up-gay stories is incredibly valuable and moving. But a bullied gay teen needs to know how to live today, how to live for today, not that in five, 10, 15, maybe 20 years, life will be -- might be -- better. As a former bullied teen, I wish someone had helped me figure out how to deal with the insults and physical threats that were regularly hurled my way. I think I knew that things would improve one day, but I didn't start living in the future (or the past) until several years down the road.

More than 20 years later, I still don't have any solid answers.

Yes, it's gotten better. But not in the sense that my problems suddenly disappeared just because I was older and wiser. Bigots and homophobes come in all ages, and they don't only prey on teens. My big brother recently had his own encounter with homophobia in Toronto when a guy spit on him and called him a faggot after my brother complimented his t-shirt. The guy then went inside a nearby bar, while my brother called the police, who came and arrested the man.

It was the perfect reaction to the crime and the sort of example that we need to be setting for our kids. Fight back. When confronted with bullies, it's important to stand your ground and defend yourself, not necessarily with physical violence (though sometimes fighting back means throwing the second punch), but with actions (alerting the police or some other trusted authority figure) or with intelligent words, which can be as useful a defense as any weapon.

Those terrible teens can be torture, but rather than wishing them away, which is what I spent most of mine doing, it's important to make the most of them. I wish I'd known then what I know now: how to handle racists and homophobes, how to win friends and influence people, how to be alone, how to take a decent picture.

A good grasp of the latter might have prevented the slight mortification I felt today when a Facebook friend posted a photo of the 16-year-old me at the beach with her and some other friends. As I stared at the snapshot, I almost didn't recognize myself. Who was that scrawny kid striking the queeniest sideways pose in the back? I don't think I could re-enact that one today if I tried. Cruel as kids can be, I suppose I can understand why some of them might have been tempted to pick on me. I was such an easy target!

Not that being older and wiser is without its special challenges. The joints start to creak, the muscles ache and hair comes and goes in all the wrong places. Still, I wouldn't trade my middle age for anything in the world. If you're lucky, as you get older, you become more skilled at expressing yourself, dressing yourself and posing in more flattering ways -- or rather, not posing at all, because that is the secret to taking great photographs. I didn't really learn that until I got older.

Yes, for me, it's gotten better. But that's not the main message I'd want to send to teens. Those of us who have improved with age, whose lives have improved need to explain how we got over, what we did to make our lives better. It's not an automatic process, or a guaranteed one. I know 40 year olds who are no more well equipped to deal with their sexuality than a 16 year old. And they still don't know how to take a decent photo.

Knowledge is power. It's cliche but so true. We should be spreading more of that instead of catchy slogans.

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