It was 2010. Everyone from President Barack Obama to “Jersey Shore’s” Vinny Guadagnino was doing it.
Celebrities recorded videos promising LGBTQ+ youth that it gets better — which was also the name of the organization that orchestrated the viral campaign. The It Gets Better Project was created in 2010 to uplift, empower, and connect LGBTQ+ youth around the world.
Following the viral videos, educators and student leaders began reaching out to ask how to turn those videos into classroom material.
Thirteen years later, with It Gets Better EDU, the organization is amplifying LGBTQ+ youth voices and making curricula for educators to bring those voices and important lessons into the classroom.
How it Works
While It Gets Better often provided supplemental resources to those who asked, “there was always this desire to have an educational arm of the organization,” says Justin Tindall, senior director of programs and operations at the It Gets Better Project.
“LGBTQ+ youth and their peers spend a fourth of their lives in a classroom,” he says. “It’s a very important place to try and reach them.”
Fortunately, more than half of LGBTQ+ youth find school to be an affirming place, according to The Trevor Project’s 2023 National Survey. But, with only 54% saying it’s an affirming place, there is still work to do. And, only 13% of LGBTQ+ youth reported hearing positive messages about being LGBTQ in school, and 12% received information about safe sex that was relevant to them, according to a 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign.
After the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, It Gets Better connected with Journeys in Film, an organization that creates educational materials specifically to go with LGBTQ+ movies. Together, they created the first EduGuide about “Finding Pride.”
It was an important partnership because schools aren’t always prepared to resource or support questioning or queer students, or even those wanting to be allies. So it was key to develop approachable and engaging activities for classroom settings, making sure that intersectionality was included.
Martine McDonald is the director of artist development at Outfest, but she worked at Journeys in Film at the time of the partnership. She says the partnership quickly discovered the need to work at the intersections of teachers, students, and media.
“We connected and talked about the needs of classroom teachers to have resources, to have affirming conversations with students, and particularly around how media is a part of building positive culture,” McDonald says.
“We were a natural fit in having a shared passion for making affirming spaces for teachers and students,” McDonald says.
Immediately, the EduGuides were getting thousands of downloads around the country, and even some abroad.
“We said, ‘There’s clearly something here,’” Tindall remembers.
Since then, the EduGuides have evolved. They cover a variety of topics, from sex ed to STEM, and have a bunch of bite-sized lessons. This was done intentionally so an educator doesn’t have to spread the videos across multiple weeks, but can instead show a 5- to 8-minute YouTube video, followed by a lesson or activity.
Aside from being more classroom-friendly, it also makes the lesson work for campus Genders & Sexualities Alliance meetings or homeroom periods.
“It’s a way that they can let their students know this is a space where these conversations can happen, where this information can be given in a very respectful and appropriate way,” Tindall says. “It’s another way that teachers can say, ‘This is a safe space because I’m willing to introduce this content to you.’”
And they’re continuing to prove popular. The EduGuide listserv reaches more than 10,000 people.
“That sends us a message that clearly there are educators out there who are craving the opportunity to introduce LGBTQ+ content, stories, history into their classrooms,” Tindall says. “They just need a resource that can help them do it.”
Hearing From Youth Voices
While It Gets Better started out with adults speaking to youth, it became a necessity to amplify youth voices.
“We’ve recognized that, while hearing from elders is really important, it’s really valuable hearing from your own age group, your own peers, if not more important,” Tindall says.
This happens through the Youth Voices program. Every summer, a new class is formed to be ambassadors for the school year.
The program kicks off with a summit where the ambassadors, accompanied by a parent or guardian, meet in person for a week of learning and bonding experiences. They attend workshops and other sessions that teach them how to be spokespeople and use their voices to create change.
And then the rest of the experience is virtual. The ambassadors present at conferences, host Instagram Lives, and write blog posts.
Eris Robinson, 18, is entering their second year of the Youth Voices program — because it’s been “one of the best experiences of my life.”
In their first summit, Robinson remembers a particularly impactful activity being a game where everyone stood in a circle and shared interests — like a favorite artist — and if someone else raised their hand, they each held an end of the string. At the end of the game, everyone was holding five or six strings to show all of the connections in the group.
“It was really emotional,” Robinson, who will be studying sociology at Wayne State University in the fall, says. “It was just really enlightening to be there and to see the humanity in everyone else.”
Aside from watching them excel in their learning, Tindall loves to watch the ambassadors become best friends.
“Some of them are in communities where they don’t have a GSA, where there are not other out kids,” Tindall says. “The chance for them to connect with this group is a big deal.”
Growing up in the South, this has been Robinson’s experience. They described not having a big queer community near where they live, other than a few local events. And because of stereotypes, classmates often choose to hide their identities to protect themselves from being stigmatized or harassed.
“Being able to connect with queer kids all over the world reassures you it’s OK to be queer,” Robinson says. “And it’s OK to connect with other queer folks, because that’s what you want, and that’s what you deserve as a queer person, to emotionally relate to other people.”
And, now that there are alumni who’ve aged out of the program and are in college, the feedback they provide is key. Many have said Youth Voices prepared them for their college experience and activism at the next level.
“It’s really, really gratifying to know that not only are we getting a benefit from their voices as an organization, but they are growing so much,” Tindall says. “We want to become an organization that is intergenerational, that is not just adults speaking to kids, is not just adult-led.”
It’s Important to Dream Big
Queer voices need to be in educational spaces because “there’s not a classroom in this country that doesn’t have a queer student in it,” Tindall says. “Knowing that’s the case, every student needs to have an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the content that is being taught. That’s really vital to have that kind of visibility in a classroom.”
Plus, Tindall says, when they’re young, queer kids are focused on simply surviving. When you’re trying to get through the day without being bullied, or dealing with struggles at home, like unwelcoming parents or homelessness, it can seem pointless to plan for the future or think deeply about a career path.
This means “they’re not dreaming big, or they’re not able to dream big,” Tindall says.
But this representation in the classroom also benefits their non-queer peers. It teaches them to empathize with and understand their LGBTQ+ classmates, and recognize that, “when you come into a workplace, you don’t leave your identities at the door,” Tindall says.
For Robinson, the biggest takeaway so far has been that “it’s OK to be myself, and any form that comes in.” This was proven to Robinson after speaking at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in February 2023. After sharing their story during a panel, people kept coming up to Robinson to share how their story impacted them.
“All of my quirks, my intersectionality of all my identities, they can all equally exist in whatever space that I’m in, and it’s OK,” Robinson says. “It’s OK to take up space and be able to tell my story.”
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