National Commentary

Did ‘It Gets Better’ Thaw Voter Hearts?

bentonmugFor someone who has never been bullied, or has lived in dread of it, it is undoubtedly hard to appreciate the depth of feeling that can be tapped in a bullied person by words of comfort and the promise of protection.

bentonmugFor someone who has never been bullied, or has lived in dread of it, it is undoubtedly hard to appreciate the depth of feeling that can be tapped in a bullied person by words of comfort and the promise of protection.

But the fact that bullying can drive persons to suicide, and has done so in the case of five young gay persons just this fall, is a clue about the powerful emotions involved.

For all the political promises to change laws and government policies to ensure  equal rights for those of homosexual orientation, the last class of Americans denied full equality under the law, it was the touching comments by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, in particular, last week that hit home with a remarkable poignancy and power.

On the newly-dubbed “Spirit Day” last Oct. 20, surely the start of a new national tradition, a day when millions of Americans were mobilized mostly through the Internet to wear purple in solidarity with victims of teenage bullying, Obama and Hilary Clinton both stepped up magnificently.

There was no political imperative to do it, and had they gone about their business that day without acknowledging something not established as an official occasion to commemorate something, no one would have thought anything of it.

But they joined in the “It Gets Better” mantra of last week’s “Spirit Day” with what were clearly personal, heartfelt comments, made even more moving by the fact that both looked directly into the camera and spoke to the victims of bullying themselves, not to any crowds, but to the individual victims.

It will get better for you, the intimate second person: the “tu” in French, not the “vous.”

These expressions were genuine, from the heart, and sincere, as they were coming from many others saying the same or similar things on that day.

The image of Tyler Clementi, that Rutgers freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, printed on the cover of last week’s “People” magazine is painful to look at. The 18-year-old is so bright-eyed and optimistic in that photo, it is almost impossible to imagine the excruciating suffering he must have endured when his roommate and a friend ran live video of his gay sexual encounter where all other Rutgers students could view it.

That’s because such a cruel “outing” magnifies the voices that already resonate in the consciousness of so many young (and adult) gays and lesbians even in these times, the internalization of what they’ve grown up learning about society’s loathing of homosexuality.

Punishment on the outside, by bullying and taunting, is matched by the punishment on the inside, of fear and self-loathing, for so many, even in this era when social acceptance is supposed to be much greater.

So when someone as powerful as President Obama, or Secretary Clinton, those who lead our society, look such persons in the eye with compassion, and say, “It gets better,” it is a great and comforting and liberating moment.

It must be that many millions of Americans picked up on that, too.

Just when the shrill voices of angry political partisanship are being magnified as the mid-term election approaches, just when the public perception of President Obama’s leadership – with angry claims he’s either gone too far or not far enough – echoing in TV attack ads, the stump speeches and among the pundits, on Oct. 20 soft and loving voices of compassion cut through all the cacophony like a hot knife through butter.

It just may have served to melt the hearts of enough Americans, especially those Obama supporters who’ve despaired over their man’s perceived shortcomings such that they’d decided to sit this election out, to make a difference on election day.

Without a doubt, in no way did Obama or Clinton intend their Oct. 20 statements to be political, but that’s just why they’ve resonated so deeply.

It is inconceivable to imagine any prior U.S. president, or any major Republican leader now, having made the kind of statements that Obama and Clinton did last week. The young people they spoke to directly have always been invisible to the official public eye, and suffered in loneliness. Until now.

 


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]

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