For Better Or Better Yet

23 11 2011

It’s been in the news. We hear about it all too often. Children are bullied for being different. And sometimes that bullying leads to suicide.

It was in response to bullying and resulting suicides that prompted Dan Savage and his partner to start the It Gets Better Project in September 2010. Specifically, Savage wanted to tell bullied and otherwise tormented LGBTQ youth that things really do get better. Do not give up. Do not hurt yourself.

In the words of the website, The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.

But what started as just a small grassroots effort to encourage adults to shoot short videos offering their own messages of hope has turned into one of the most effective viral campaigns ever unwittingly launched. Tod ate, over 22,000 videos have been recorded and posted online, by straights and LGBTQ community members, celebrities and the person next door.

And it is an area in which my colleague and I wanted to study.

A couple of days ago at the National Communication Association conference in New Orleans we presented the first research paper from our exploratory study. In this study we examined the attitudes of WT students toward gays and lesbians, their perceptions of bullying on campus, and their interest in seeing a campus-specific video posted embracing this message. Students also watched an IGB video produced for a major state university outside of this region.

The findings were interesting, to say the very least. Given that we live in the buckle of the Bible belt, we expected a decided slant toward the right side of the spectrum. We were pleasantly surprised in many regards.

Our sample was small by design (it was exploratory, remember), with a total of 175 usable responses. The first task in this paper-and-pencil classroom survey was to complete Herek’s 20-item ATLG Scale (Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay men). The ATLG is comprised of two 10-item subscales, one about lesbians, the other about gay men. We found that overall scores on the ATLG were more open-minded and favorable than a statistical middle ground (we expected the opposite).

But we also found that WT is little different from the rest of the nation in that gay men are held in lower regard than are lesbians. We also found that males in general had harsher views toward gay men and lesbians than did women. This, too, is consistent with the rest of the nation. What was troubling was that 48% of respondents scored on the other side of that midpoint, demonstrating a fairly high degree of bias exists on campus. That the scores of this group of nearly one-half the sample were more than offset by the other 52% suggests that ours is a bifurcated campus, with a slight and encouraging tendency toward no bias.

We also discovered that the campus is fairly receptive to the idea of launching our own IGB Project video campaign and has fairly low perceptions of bullying on campus, but that there were significant differences based one whether respondents were LGBTQ themselves, knew someone who is, or were friends with someone who is. In other words, exposure is critical to open-mindedness toward this proposition.

Finally, we collected several measures of religious intensity, such as belief in a supreme being, frequency of prayer, frequency of reading scripture, frequency of attending religious services, and self-identified level of spirituality. It was at this point we noticed very confusing results. People who identified as not being very spiritual as well as not praying very often, were significantly more in favor of a WT IGB campaign. But there were no differences based on frequency of reading scripture, frequency of attending religious services, or belief in a supreme being.

Religious intensity, thus, is not a very strong correlate of views on bullying and a localized campaign.

We still have many questions that need to be answered. Why is the perception of bullying rather low here? Is it because bullying really is low, or is it because it is just not that visible? Or is our campus more accepting of the LGBTQ community than we expected?

Our results show some promise for a campaign of this nature at WT. We are anxious to broaden the scope of our research, at WT, into the broader community, and nationally. That 22,000 videos would be posted in 14 months shows that the digital grapevine has done its job, and millions more youth have been exposed to a message of hope.

It really does get better.

Dr “Spread The Word” Gerlich


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