Mike Wenk's Session Proposal for the Conference of the Whole Language Umbrella, a constituency of the National Council Teachers of English:

Session Title
“It Gets Better” as a GLBTQ Social Movement: How Electronic Stories Are Overpowering Silence in Our Nation’s Schools

Presentation Rationale
When Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after his roommate secretly posted video on the Internet of him having sex with a man, the media spotlight shone on a fledgling movement called “It Gets Better,” which debuted just a day before on YouTube (ABC News). The movement, started by Dan Savage and his partner, Terry, shares stories from adults urging gay youth to hang on through bullying and ostracization, because, as is the theme of every video, “it gets better.” Savage created the channel on YouTube in response to the suicides of gay teens Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas during the summer of 2010; later, in response to the outrage over bullying and more LGBTQ suicides, the YouTube channel morphed into a website, a book, and a national movement that now is making inroads into schools (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/). In many schools, fear of community backlash regarding any form of gay discourse has been overcome by indignation and the assertion that no child deserves to be bullied. Where once silence reigned, discourse about our GLBTQ students is beginning to be willfully inserted into school spaces.

How has this tide turned? Some would argue that younger generations are more tolerant of sexuality, and that attitudes are shifting. As more GLBTQ people come out, the stigma is reduced, others would argue. I contend that the rhetoric is changing: an examination of the rhetoric of the “It Gets Better” movement and anti-bullying initiatives will show that the issue of tolerance and other GLBTQ topics are being forced into schools as a means to promote of safety, as matter of fairness, and, in light of teen suicide, as an issue regarding the sanctity of human life.

Theoretical Perspectives
Social movement theory serves as the lens for examining how “It Gets Better” videos and anti-bullying campaigns have helped to change the rhetoric of sexuality and LGBTQ issues in schools. Robert Cathcart defines movements as “collective acts seeking social change” (page 95). For Cathcart and other social movement theorists, a movement is a “rhetorical act” (page 95) which plays out between agents of the movement and the establishment as “dialectical enjoinment in the moral arena” (page 87). It goes beyond one speech or one person to encompass “greater social forces” (Sillars, page 106). Herbert Simons believes that movements must fulfill three requirements: followers must be organized, the aim is to change the system, and resistance to demands must be met (page 37). Simons delineates between militant and moderate movements; in the case of “It Gets Better,” more moderate strategies seem to apply, even as indignation is voiced at the senseless loss of lives. Simons describes the moderate as an advocate of “peaceful persuasion” whose “devil is a condition or a set of behaviors” (page 40). More recent writings from social movement theorists describe movements as more cultural than political (Beuchler), and envision movements as less centralized and more diffuse, sometimes due to innovative use of the media (Harold).

Why choose movement theory as a framework for a presentation to educators? Movement theory may be best-situated to explain what is happening in our society in regard to tolerance of GLBTQ students and why it is happening. This has repercussions for literacy teachers as they navigate community norms and the needs of students, particularly LGBTQ students. As issues of tolerance begin to be framed as issues of safety and justice, then teachers may find the door is open to discourse in schools around GLBTQ identity and issues. As videos on YouTube reveal gay adults engaged in civil discourse, discussions about stereotypes about GBLTQ youth can be adopted as part of a “normal” and civil school discourse.

Implications for Teachers of Literacy
It may finally be safe in most schools across the country to finally materialize our GLBTQ students who having been hidden in the shadows for so long. The positive embodiment of our GLBTQ students, and tolerance for them, can occur in classrooms where teachers address bullying using curricular materials that have already been created; where dialogue about stories can openly, maturely, and respectfully address issues of sexuality; and where students can share their stories, once silenced, in writing and through less traditional forms of expression (electronic media). As educators gain an understanding of the “It Gets Better” movement and its underpinnings, they may be able to gauge the community where they teach and find ways to introduce dialogue about a segment of the population in spaces where the dialogue was once controversial and unwelcome. As the rhetoric shifts from lifestyle choices to the sanctity of life, educators are less likely to face backlash for helping to embody GLBTQ people in their classrooms.

Presentation Format
This session is intended to be interactive, informative, and empowering. The presentation will include:
  • an overview of the “It Gets Better” movement;
  • an exploration with participants into the power of stories in the “It Gets Better” videos and book;
  • an examination of the rhetoric of sexuality in schools and the role “It Gets Better” is playing in overcoming silence;
  • a case study of how one school addressed intolerance and bullying;
  • a dialogue about the ways literacy teachers could introduce the movement to their classrooms and communities; and,
  • an array of resources for educators to take back to their schools.