Last spring, 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio was brutally beaten on the streets of Santiago, Chile. After weeks of hospitalization, Zamudio died. He was a young gay man who was the target of a hate crime.
Chile, where I live, has the worst school-based bullying and teenage suicide rates in Latin America—and for LGBT young people, the rates are staggering. During the weeks Zamudio was fighting for his life, a TV reporter asked me, What can you really say to young people while Zamudio is in the hospital?
I closed my eyes and said, “If you are a parent and are watching this, talk to your children, hug them; let them know they are loved. If you are a teacher or an adult caretaker, learn ways to teach about non-discrimination, respect and care. If you are an LGBT young person, know that for every time we are discriminated against, there are 1,000 times when we celebrate who we are and live fulfilling lives as LGBTs. If you are feeling scared, watch the videos on our page, download the resources, call a friend. Don't hurt yourselves. It really does get better.”
The Zamudio tragedy happened to coincide with our launch of the Spanish-language version of the It Gets Better website. After working closely with the It Gets Better Project (IGBP) Director Seth Levy along with a small army of psychologists, researchers, reporters, and a lawyer, we launched TODO MEJORA on March 20, bringing the strength of this collaborative project of compassion to at-risk young people throughout Latin America.
The depth of a young person's pain who has lost hope for life, just for being who they are, knows no national boundaries—it's universal. TODO MEJORA is about hope, and hope is the light in the darkest moments. That said, the migration of a project like IGBP to other countries occurs within national contexts. While the essence of IGBP lives, the obstacles in the lives of young people, adults who want to send a message of hope, and laws, religion, and culture of each nation or region can be quite different.
In Chile, machismo continues to be a strong cultural force, and its expression ranges from “pro”- women laws that celebrate marriage, motherhood, and traditional gender roles, to the high levels of violence against women, often extending to their children. Talking about “children and adolescents,” “LGBT,” and “suicide” all in the same sentence can be a real challenge. We've even learned that several TV stations in Chile cannot say “homosexual” or “suicide” during the hours children watch their shows.
The adult gay male community has an active social life—often out to their immediate family, but closeted to the more extended family and at work. So, how do you talk to someone who may lose their job about how important it would be for them to make a public video about being gay and happy? That means many of us, in less gay-friendly countries, need different strategies that include more straight allies, nationals who live in other countries, and key spokespeople. It's a process of education about all of the issues surrounding LGBT suicide.
To ensure representation of women, we go to lesbian bars, building a fast and strong network of contacts. We're working towards awareness among celebrities whose videos have had a significant impact, and in some cases counsel young people to not upload their videos because they may not be aware of what the publicity will bring to their lives. It's a tough call, and that's the reason we chose to have a group of psychologists and a psychiatrist review some videos.
The first volunteer I recruited is the director of a therapy center where parents come for help with their LGBT children. He had a network of contacts—three centers with which we signed agreements before launching www.todomejora.org. Soon, I recruited a researcher. Chile has no data on LGBT youth, and without a snapshot of the extent of the problem, we cannot influence public officials.
The result: more than 70,000 visits in six months, with 83 videos and various emails declaring, “I was really sad, had tried against my life before. I watched every video and decided not to hurt myself. Thank you for reminding me that it does get better.”
On the backs of our tireless volunteers in Chile we grew fast and fearlessly. We want to have concrete, long-term impact, and keep all of our promises. It's been hard work—and we've all got day jobs—but each day is worth it. We are empowered by the reminder of the importance of our task: to tell LGBT youth how beautiful they are, that there is someone looking out for them, and that even the worst days of their lives will pass, and it will get better.