Whether they spoke of times when they didn’t feel safe walking down the street because they were gay or talked about friends and colleagues who struggled with acceptance, SUNY New Paltz students, faculty and staff came together to compose video testimonials with one message: it gets better.
Last week, WNPC TV began filming testimonials for SUNY New Paltz’s full-length video for the It Gets Better Project. The national campaign, spearheaded by columnist Dan Savage in September, began after the suicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers across the country made headlines in recent months.
Teens Justin Aeberg, Billy Lucas, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Raymond Chase and Tyler Clementi committed suicide after incidences of bullying. Director of Student Activities and Union Services Mike Patterson, who is openly gay, said these national cases of bullying, – particularly through social media outlets where those like Clementi faced persecution, – became a topic of discussion at a meeting of the Department of Student Affairs. These discussions ultimately led to the decision to make a video for the It Gets Better Project.
“This is a way for us to use social media in a positive way. Technology is such a part of our world these days that we live within it, and sometimes that is good and sometimes that is bad,” Patterson said. “Have we seen signs of bullying through social media here? Yes. Is it happening everywhere? Yes. Every school is talking about it and trying to address it in ways that we can.”
Patterson composed an e-mail to the student body asking those who wanted to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences for the video to come to the Student Union last week to shoot a testimonial. Approximately 30 students, faculty and staff members participated, including a student studying abroad in Australia who seeks to send a video electronically.
One of these students was Dey Armbrister, third-year radio and television production major, who said he heard about the campaign from Student Association Vice President Of Academic Affairs Caitlin Ryan. Armbrister said he faced forms of bullying in high school because he was gay, ranging from being called names to having pennies thrown at him.
Although he said SUNY New Paltz is a fairly progressive school, Ambrister said he felt it was important to remind members of the LGBT community to remain strong in the face of homophobia.
“My message to everybody is to keep your head high,” he said. “We all are human beings. We all bleed red, we all sneeze and get sick, we all have happiness. We shouldn’t be treated any differently than the next person.”
Participation in the project was not limited to members of the LGBT community, however.
Second-year undeclared student Robin Hall was one of several heterosexual participants in the video. Hall said she decided to offer a testimonial after seeing how her LGBT friends have been bullied and how bullying can lead to suicidal thoughts, as was the case for the seven boys whose struggles inspired the project.
“Although I am not homosexual myself, I can show my support,” she said. “What people don’t realize is that being homosexual is only one small part of someone’s personality. People make far too big of a deal out of it and they need to get past that.”
In addition to the personal messages, the video also includes advice from representatives of the Psychological Counseling Center at SUNY New Paltz. The counselors offered different outlets for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. According to Savage, LGBT youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide.
Patterson said campus organizations are also raising awareness and trying to create a more open community themselves. He said examples include programs hosted by fraternities and sororities and the Student Association’s effort to reduce the use of gendered language in its business meetings.
The SUNY New Paltz Queer Action Coalition (QAC) is continuing to host programs created with the LGBT community in mind. Vice President and Web Master Danielle Kingsbury said the group has 38 members attending meetings consistently. The group has hosted events including a speed dating program and tabling for Ally Week, which was designed so that heterosexuals could express that they’re against LGBT language, bullying and harassment.
Kingsbury said QAC sent a letter to Clementi’s family, who a member of the club knows personally. She decided to also make a testimonial for the It Gets Better Project because she said she saw this as an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience.
“I feel like this is a chance to be a part of something bigger,” Kingsbury said. “When a person is on the Internet and they find one resource that helps them out, they are more likely to look for others. By adding one more video to the pool of really supportive messages, it gets the word out that New Paltz students who support gay rights are there.”
Kingsbury and Patterson both found out about the It Gets Better Project after viewing testimonials made by celebrities and politicians, ranging from Tim Gunn to President Barack Obama. The SUNY New Paltz video may be added to the pool of over 1,000 posted to the campaign’s official website.
Patterson said that while members of the community are continuing to try to come up with creative ways for combating harassment on campus, students can have a huge effect.
“The real method of impact here comes when students can be the point of change,” Patterson said. “Students can be the ones to educate their peers, hold them accountable and let them know that this is our community, and we don’t stand for this.”
The testimonials filmed at SUNY New Paltz can be seen on WNPC TV. The video currently available on newpaltz.edu.