Norman Borlaug is credited for saving more lives than Oskar Schindler by a factor of roughly 84,000. That’s 84,000 TIMES. Norman Borlaug is the father of the “Green Revolution.” He is an agronomist and humanitarian who developed high yield crops, which are considered to have saved millions and millions of people. Oskar Schindler is the guy they made that movie about. He saved about 1200 people.
No small part of my youth was misspent ingesting various substances with friends and contemplating questions like: Who is the person who is responsible for saving the most human lives? We would come up with Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Shakespeare. As we started drying out our brain cells we would consider the contributions of Gutenberg; the folks who came up with the Scientific Method; and, eventually, after watching a few of our own crash and burn, Bill W. We noticed that it was the hard work of those little-known names that did the most good. It is an interesting commentary on our species that the news is ripe with stories of heroic rescues propelled by adrenalin, yet the lone woman or man working late testing batch after batch of vaccines in a dark university lab loses her/his parking space to a football player.
When Dan Savage spoke at OSU as the keynote speaker for PRIDE week last Monday, I showed up with 800 of my closest friends to hear him speak. I have been reading his sex advice column for years, and you’ll find a few of his pod casts on my phone. His flamingly gay, uncensored, and (arguably) nonjudgmental responses to those in the midst of sexual angst are captivating entertainment—and perhaps offer a little hope that someday we will be able to discuss sex without having to apologize for being sexual beings. But what really sparked my interest was hearing him speak of his It Gets Better project.
The It Gets Better website (itgetsbetter.org) describes the project as: “Many LGBT [Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves. So let's show them what our lives are like, let's show them what the future may hold in store for them.”
In response to a spate of teen suicides by LGBT teens last year, Dan and his husband, Terry, made a YouTube video informing bullied, hopeless teens that it does get better. Moreover, they invited others—gay and not-so-gay—to make videos, too. Most teens at risk feel that they cannot talk to their parents about what is happening in their lives since their parents disapprove and often follow the twisted advice from the unenlightened fundamentalist groups, shunning and shaming the kids at home. In their present environment these teens are not going to meet gay adults modeling the great lives that are waiting for them at the other end of their adolescence. So for now they find their support under the covers at night when everyone else is asleep by watching YouTube videos on their phones. People like Dan and Terry (as well as the Obamas, who have made a video for It Gets Better, along with tens of thousands of others) can join these teens in their own beds without the permission of their parents and show them that they are not alone and that there is a big world out there where gay people get to be gay, safe, happy, and productive.
How many gay teens have found hope through this program? How many lives have been saved by this video project going worldwide? Do we now count Al Gore as one of the people who saved the most lives because he invented the internets that allows this project to exist? It seems like a silly question, but it makes the point that acting on a vision can create a new world.
This is far from a call for Dan Savage’s canonization. I know someone who is intimately involved in research and treatment of teen suicide that has gone toe-to-toe with Savage on a few issues—and got Savage to change his tune—be it ever so slightly. Although my friend gladly praises Savage for this program, he is not a total fan. Let’s just say that Savage’s column can be an acquired taste. He boldly goes where many people’s minds have never gone before, and that can shake up even the most open minded among us. I have to be in the mood to read it and to get into the heads of those whose kinks are so outside my own interests that they rate high on my “Eww!” scale.
Savage has what I perceive as a subtle straight-intolerant background hum. When he asked the straight people in the OSU audience to raise their hands, I paused. My initial reaction was: With whom I pick out curtains is not something I have to proclaim, and who the hell is anyone to be asking? However, I had an interesting subsequent reaction: If I don’t put my hand up, people might think I’m gay. Was he making a point, or did I make it myself?
I’m glad I was able to make the mistake of denying a gay friend’s gayness when I was in middle school. It’s a mistake one should get out of the way early in life so as to never make it again. Because I wouldn’t participate in the bullying of my friend, presumptions were made. After losing this friend, I realized that refraining from having made fun of him with the rest of the boys was not the same as helping him. Rather, I had been helping myself. I channeled that guilt into a high school career of viciously defending my gay teachers and classmates. This was not cool in a small Oregon logging town in the 1970s. In the 1990s, I helped get my stepdaughter through the school system of another small Oregon logging town. Now that kid wasn’t into Barbies. She and her partner now have a nice house in Eugene and a couple lovely dogs. Furthermore, she doesn’t hesitate to call me on it when I perpetuate stereotypes.
Savage ended the two-hour talk with a story about a man who married his horse and was offended and mortified when asked if the horse was a female. The man frantically assured everyone that he was NOT a homosexual. According to him, that would be sick.
I attended the event with Cassie—another Savage follower. We beat the crowd out of the place and landed in Tommy’s for a late dinner. She expressed gratitude for her good luck at not getting too much crap for being a lesbian in high school. Then again, she wasn’t even born when I graduated from high school, so we high schooled in different worlds. We were both tired and not really talking up a storm like we usually do. So we just looked at each other across the table. There was something in the way that she looked at me that reminded me of my kid, and I realized that things are getting better. Without having to say that, we just nodded at each other as I helped myself to her fries.
I don’t think of Norman Borlaug when I have my morning bread and peanut butter. (Though I never take my morning coffee for granted. Ever.) Is Dan Savage in Norman’s league? Well, no. But, I hope in the future we take LBGT teens living safely and happily for granted—as much for granted as I take my whole grain wheat toast.