Thandiwe Thomas DeShazor looks pointedly into the camera. He shoves his hands into his jeans pockets. He begins to speak.
“The people that are picking on you, secretly want to be you,” he says. “People are jealous of our freedom. So, always, hold that inside you.”
He places his palm over his heart. “That’s what got me through,” he says. “And I hope that’ll get you through.”
And … scene. The camera, set up on a tripod in the office of the LGBT support organization Oakland Pride, is paused by the camerawoman, Ron Dia. DeShazor, who’s an artist and an actor and a Pride board member, stands on a makeshift stage. An oversized banner baring a strip of rainbow colors and Oakland’s iconic tree is strung up on the wall behind him, and he is facing a brand-new camera on a tripod. He’s making a video, his own contribution from Oakland, for the inspirational new YouTube project collectively titled “It Gets Better.”
DeShazor is slight, with a shock of black hair, a goatee and wire-rimmed glasses. He hauls over an easel that displays a white sheet of paper. In green marker he starts to write in neat print. He writes the number one, and then the word community. After the number two, he writes the word love, this time in all caps. Number three he leaves blank, to be filled in later. Ron Dia starts recording again. DeShazor’s face is calm and earnest. He’s talking, as all the It Gets Better contributors do, directly to kids.
“I want to give you three reasons why it gets better, so you need to stick in there,” he says. “Reason number one: Community.” He points to the first item on his list. “They say that it’s six degrees of separation, but when you are gay, it’s more like four. And when you are gay and a person of color, it’s more like two. So you have a whole community of people that share a same history, a same feeling. All you need to do is tap into it.”
The It Gets Better Project serves as a digital chorus of solidarity and support for LGBT adolescents and teens all over the world. The video project, which in less than a month has turned into an international phenomenon, was spearheaded by Seattle-based advice columnist Dan Savage in the wake of a sequence of gay teen suicides in September. Each teen death has been traced to peer bullying, and to the harsh reality of being a gay teenager in America.
Savage first addressed the suicide of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, a young man from Indiana who hanged himself, in a column on September 23. “I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better,” Savage wrote. “I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
Savage then implored older gay, bisexual and transgender people to make short videos for their younger counterparts and post them on YouTube. He asked them to share personal stories of heartache and perseverance, and to reassure young people struggling with their sexual identity that life will, in fact, improve. Savage blazed the trail by making one such video with his husband, Terry, and the It Gets Better Project was born.
“Reason number two,” says DeShazor, tapping the second item on his list with his marker. “Love.” He pauses. “This is a tricky one, ’cause sometimes love feels good, and sometimes love feels not so good,” he says. “But—” he hesitates, rolling his shoulders back. “If you’re not feeling it, you’re not alive.”
A young woman is watching DeShazor’s shoot. Her name is Tangie Young, although she goes by Sunshine Willow, and she’s a friend of his. She’s lovely and confident, with long, braided hair and a heartwarming smile. Later Willow will make an It Gets Better video of her own, focusing on creative expression and her women’s art group, The She Peoples.
Then she and DeShazor will make one together, arms around each other’s shoulders, challenging ignorance with their own rock-solid friendship. The pair knew each other growing up in Detroit, and reconnected after each relocated to Oakland a few years back. Both are in their late 20s, both are African-American, and both know what it’s like to navigate the often-treacherous process of coming out, a topic particularly relevant to this week—Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day.
“It was difficult growing up,” DeShazor says, off-camera, slumping down in a desk chair. “My family is very religious, especially my mother’s side. It was a struggle. I had always known I was gay, but I hid it from myself and others. And it still is a struggle.”
Sunshine can relate. She, too, was raised in a religious household, and to this day her mother doesn’t fully accept her lesbian identity. But Young’s father is extremely supportive, and both she and DeShazor have found a sense of security in their adopted community of Oakland. “In Michigan, I was considered more creative in my dress—you might even call it tacky,” says Sunshine, who works at Seneca Center, counseling children and families. “But then I move here, and no one even thinks twice to look at me.”
While finding such a comfort zone is an empowering thing, it can make it easy to forget others are struggling, says Renee Huff, board member and legal counsel for Oakland Pride. Huff strides into the office on the morning of the shoot, a big business-first presence in a slight frame, and talks about reminding herself to think of the kids. “Here I am, 35-years-old, in all my lesbian dyke glory,” Huff says. “I’ve forgotten that there’s a 16-year-old lesbian somewhere going through what I went through.”
She plans to shoot her own video soon, Huff says, so she can talk to that 16-year-old. “I forgot about her,” Huff says. “I thought that ended when I came out. But it didn’t, which is why I’m really excited about projects like It Gets Better.”
The It Gets Better homepage includes lengthy comment streams now, and while there is the random hate message, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Some comments are a blunt reminder of what started it all, like this one from music0luvr: “I just wanted to say … this project literally saved my life. If I hadn’t been shown this when I did, who knows where I would be now?”
The overall theme is gratitude for the messages people have posted, a simple reassurance that the videos are doing their job. “I am an LGBT teen and I just want to say thank you to all of you who are doing this,” writes commenter RihannonRenegade. “It’s inspiring and it really does help.”
Now DeShazor has reached the third item on his list—a more lighthearted pearl of wisdom. “And the number three reason why you need to hang in there?” He uncaps the green marker. Next to the No. 3, his bespectacled eyes filled with amusement, he writes out four large, deliberate letters: P-O-R-N. “Porn,” he says. “There is some really great porn out there.” He pauses, remarkably straight-faced. “Now, I know that it’s possible that you are already aware of the porn. I just hope that you’re erasing the history on your Mama’s computer, ’cause that ain’t cute.”
Suddenly he grows serious. After all, DeShazor has been there. He officially came out to his family when he was 18, but before that, he experienced all the self-doubt and uncertainty so common to gay adolescents. Now, he is proud to say that even his mother, a skeptic at first, is coming around. Occasionally, when DeShazor posts LBGT-related links on Facebook, his mom will “like” them.
But now, he addresses a younger version of himself—addresses those whose mothers don’t know, and wouldn’t approve. He speaks to teens who can’t come out right now—the ones who live in small towns, who have religious parents, who have been forced into silence by their peers. He clasps his hands in front of him, imploring them to look online to find resources and to hang in there. “It’s going to get better,” he says. “It will. But YOU have to make it better.”