LYNN, Mass. — The It Gets Better project has grown into a formidable movement. Advice columnist Dan Savage founded it in 2010 to help young LGBT people see that they can find happiness and acceptance in a world that isn't always tolerant of teens with differences.
Thousands of personal videos are posted on the It Gets Better website, with the goal of fostering understanding. Now a group of high school students in Lynn has teamed up with a local musician to submit their effort. It highlights issues related to anti-gay bullying that can lead to teen suicide.
"High school is really hard," said Christopher Gaines, a professional filmmaker who runs a program at Raw Art Works, an afterschool arts therapy program based in Lynn. The teens he works with conceived, directed and acted in an intense video for the song "Make it Out" by Jen Grygiel. "And so I think that these kids felt like there was an opportunity to send a message to other kids," Gaines explained.
It took the full school year to complete, he said, and half of the kids who contributed to the video identify themselves as gay. But ultimately they hope the video will speak to everybody.
"They didn’t set out to tell 'gay stories,' but stories about feeling isolated when you’re surrounded by people, feeling that you have loving parents that you can’t turn to and talk to, even if they are good parents," Gaines said. "All of those things are kind of what informed their process."
They started with the song. It’s by Cambridge musician and gay rights activist Grygiel. In the video, she takes the stage in a high school auditorium, but the action quickly cuts to a white-tiled bathroom. A red-haired student is crouching down, covering his head for protection, while three bullies kick and punch him. It's brutal.
Grygiel's electric guitar provides the backdrop, along with her chorus that says, "It'll be OK..."
Twenty-year-old Andrys Omar-Galan, a student at Lynn English High School, plays one of the bullies, but he admitted his wardrobe was an issue.
"My whole closet doesn’t say straight at all," Omar-Galan said.
Omar-Galan is openly gay and speaks with a gentle smile. At first, he was reluctant to play a bully who beats up another kid because he’s gay. That’s one of the three reality-based stories that are woven together in the video.
In another thread, 18-year-old Ashaad Suarez essentially reenacted coming out to his father when he was a freshman.
"There were a few tears. It was really hard. Because before I came out to my father I was the sweetest person you could ever meet, but behind closed doors I was the most miserable," Suarez recalled. "I had no friends, I had nobody to talk to, I didn’t tell a soul that I was gay because I was terrified out of my mind. I didn’t know who or how they would respond to it."
His father responded angrily and rejected him. For Suarez, working on the "Make it Out" video was kind of like therapy.
"I really don’t like talking about stuff that happened back then," Suarez said. "So when I see it there I’m like, 'Wow! How did this struggle that I went through get turned into art?' " Then, he added, "I loved it. I love the film."
Seventeen-year-old Liam Madigan-Freid helped conceive, direct and also acted in the video. He’s straight, and believes the experience definitely changed the way he sees things.
"I’m from Swampscott. I don’t think there’s more than one or two out kids in our entire school," Madigan-Freid said. "But it definitely did make my perspective on the gay and lesbian community broader. That a teenager might think his life is total hell, you know, but how do you think a gay and lesbian teen who has to stay in the closet just to not get beaten up every day feels? It must be terrible."
In the video, Madigan-Freid plays a bully who torments his real-life friend Jake Kennedy.
"I played the red-headed kid that got beat up and almost jumped off the bridge but didn’t because Ashaad saved me," Kennedy described.
His character is gay, but Kennedy is not.
"I'm straight. I mean, I had to act as a gay kid and I was totally fine with that," Kennedy said while sitting among his filmmaking peers at Raw Art Works.
Suarez chimed in: "I was surprised at that cause a lot of people would’ve turned that role down. Cause I was asking people and they were like, ‘Uh uh, I ain’t playing someone who's gay.' "
Responding to his friend, Kennedy said, "I found no difference with it. You’re just another person playing a sad kid."
These are exactly the kinds of conversations musician Grygiel hoped this video would spark. The video idea grew out of her own participation in Savage's It Gets Better project. One of her missions right now is to support gay youth with the goal of preventing any more teen suicides. It's also one of the reasons why she let the group of teenagers at Raw Art Works have their way with her song.
"It shows kids, it’s a visualization of what life can actually look like, and it gives them hope," Grygiel said. "And I’ve never seen anything like that, so I was just blown away when I saw that — and I was touched."
Grygiel has shown the video to a lot of people, and told me most have been moved to the point of tears. It is powerful and emotional, with impressively high production values. Now the musician wants as many gay and straight teens as possible to see the “Make it Out” video online, and admits she wishes she had seen something like it when she was struggling to find her way as a LGBT kid in high school. Her fingers are crossed that It Gets Better accepts the video among all the others in its steady stream of submissions. The teens at the Raw Art Works program have high hopes, too.
This program aired on July 18, 2012.