NORMAN — Dan Savage's chief aim in the creation of the It Gets Better campaign was to save lives.
But make no mistake — it was always an act of aggression.
“We're going to talk to you kids whether you want us to or not,” he said.
Savage, an author and columnist who writes and speaks about gay and transgender issues, spoke at the University of Oklahoma on Thursday night. Savage launched the campaign in 2010 with his partner, Terry Miller.
The project began as a small series of online videos targeted at bullied gay and transgender teenagers, and quickly developed into an international movement. The project aims to show those teenagers that a happy, fulfilling future is possible, even if it seems out of reach at the time. Today, the series includes an estimated 80,000 videos, including entries from President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The project came about after an Indiana teenager committed suicide after being bullied.
Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself inside his family's barn after being taunted by tormentors who perceived him to be gay.
Teenagers in that situation are uniquely vulnerable, Savage said, because they don't always have support from their parents or other family members. If a teenager is bullied because of religion, race or social class, they can generally look to their parents for support and see them as examples of people who have found themselves in a similar situation and gone on to find fulfillment.
That isn't the case with gay teenagers, he said, whose parents may be less willing to accept them and may even participate in the bullying themselves.
The campaign seeks to offer a support group to young people who may not have access to one otherwise — often against the wishes of that teenager's parents.
“We're going to speak to your children whether you realize right now that you want us to,” he said. “You want us to. You just don't know it yet.”
Visit draws critics
Savage's visit to OU drew criticism from Christian conservatives both on campus and elsewhere. An online petition condemning his visit had 238 signatures Friday evening.
A.J. Stewart, an OU student, was one of those signers. He said he takes exception to statements Savage has made about Republicans and Christians in the past, including a 2011 episode of HBO's “Real Time with Bill Maher,” in which Savage said he wished all Republicans were dead.
During his speech Thursday, Savage addressed the statement, saying he'd apologized for it on a number of occasions and continues to be sorry he said it. Savage described the statement as “straight-up, no-excuses offensive.”
Despite his misgivings about Savage, Stewart said he supported his message about preventing gay suicides.
“No gay teen should ever feel compelled to commit suicide,” Stewart said. “And it's a tragedy when it happens — an absolute tragedy.”
Stewart describes himself as a Christian conservative.
He said he didn't want to see Savage's freedom of speech infringed, but he did hope to see the university invite a speaker with a contrasting viewpoint.
He noted that Savage's visit was funded by student fees paid by OU students.
“Mr. Savage has a tendency to let his controversial views bleed over into his noncontroversial views,” he said.