“Being who you are is not a disorder. / Being unloved is not a psychiatric disorder.” Those are the first two lines of Franz Wright’s harrowing poem “Pediatric Suicide,” addressed, as its title suggests, to a child tempted to end it all to escape the pain of isolation. The poem continues, gut-wrenchingly, a few stanzas later: “Putting your head down and crying your way through elementary school is not a mental illness, on the contrary.”
I was reminded of those lines recently while watching some of the videos from the “It Gets Better” campaign. In case you haven’t heard, “It Gets Better” is an effort to reach out to LGBTQ kids in the wake of increased reports of school bullying and the tragic suicides of several of the targets. Featuring everyone from Chris Colfer, a star on the hit TV show Glee, and Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, to Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson and President Obama, each of the video messages assures teens that, whatever ostracism and hatred they may be experiencing now, things will change. Dan Savage, the project’s founder, put it like this, writing in the wake of Billy Lucas and Tyler Clementi’s suicides: “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.” Being unloved is not a disorder, the website and videos seem to say. So don’t despair. Being who you are is okay—and someday, maybe very soon, you’ll be loved for it.
On one level, as a Christian, I can’t help but applaud this innovative, grassroots movement to offer comfort, kindness, and support to a much-maligned group of adolescents. If Christians can’t find common cause with a campaign to decry and oppose verbal—and sometimes physical—abuse, then I wonder about the alignment of our moral compass. On the other hand, as I ponder the message it gets better, my mind goes back to the way Wright’s “Pediatric Suicide” poem concludes—barely a thread of hope suspended between, not in, its lines—by describing a “friendless and permanent sadness.” The poem’s last sentence says, “She was unhappy just as I was only not as lucky.” Surely, this poem suggests, simply saying the words it gets better doesn’t guarantee that it will. And narrating the way it has gotten better for some . . . well, doesn’t that just beg the question of whether it will for me? What are the concrete, reliable grounds for believing it gets better? Are there any?
Not so long ago, in my late teens, I remember searching the Internet for similar videos, hoping to find someone to persuade me of the same message. Since puberty, I’d been aware of exclusively same-sex desires, and I was fearful as to what that meant for my future. I wanted to hear someone say I wasn’t alone, that the confusion and anxiety I felt wouldn’t last forever. YouTube didn’t exist back then, so there wasn’t an “It Gets Better” campaign for me to find. What I ended up discovering instead was a community of Christians who told me the story of the gospel and, energized by its hope, reached out to me in love.
My Christian friends told me that God is a good creator, explaining that he made humanity male and female and designed marriage, a covenant union between one man and one woman, as the place for human sexual desire to flourish (see Genesis 2:20-25 read together with Matthew 19:4-5). But they also described creation’s subsequent fall into sin and death. The biblical narrative of an originally pristine world gone horribly awry on account of human rebellion made sense of the fact that, through no conscious choice of my own, as an inheritor of Adam’s sin, I found myself experiencing desires for what seemed, in Christian terms, to be the wrong objects (see Romans 1:24-27). East of Eden, even our bodies are in need of redemption, my friends pointed out (see Romans 8:23).
Above all, the Christians I got to know pointed me to Jesus. Single, celibate, with no place to lay his head, Jesus understood my feeling of being broken and the loneliness that came with it. More than that, he died and was raised to secure for me eternal life with his Father in their Spirit—a life in which all bullying, sadness, and self-harm have no place. Trusting in him, I could count on God to see me not as a damnable failure but as an adopted son, a fellow heir with Jesus, a justified sinner. And I could look forward to a bodily resurrection patterned after Jesus’ own.
My friends didn’t just tell me this story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—a kind of ultimate it gets better message. They also, in my case, seemed to say, “Let’s make it better”—through love. The Christians I got to know committed themselves, through the unity secured by the Holy Spirit rather than through biological ties, to being my family if I never experienced marriage firsthand. They invited me into their homes, took me on vacation with them, and encouraged me to consider myself an older sibling to their children. And they recruited me to join them in causes of hospitality, in making room for bullied kids—and bullies—at our dinner tables.
Such a message, surely, is more powerful than an optimistic forecast of a future in which love and acceptance may be found—but also, perhaps, may not. The Christian gospel heralds a God who does not leave us to our sinful desires, our broken selves and sexualities. On the contrary, God has achieved our healing and salvation through his Son’s cross and empty tomb, and one day, that salvation will reach its intended consummation. Meanwhile, we try to love, sometimes haltingly, always imperfectly, pointing past our present pain to the coming of God’s future. In the end, my friends said, it will get better, and we can share the foretastes.