As we gear up towards the event, we met with Brian Wenke for a new episode of Making Rainbow Waves, the podcast by ILGA World.
Brian is the executive director of the It Gets Better Project. Together we talked about his personal story, what does the organisation have in store for the upcoming ILGA World Conference, how the meaning of such a powerful statement as “It Gets Better” has changed over the years, and so much more.
“I definitely saw (“it gets better”) evolve from something that is more of a calming-like, soothing “It's okay” kind of thing, “life will get better”, into “Yes, it gets better, and it gets freaking awesome, and you have a role to play here, and you have value,” right? “And if and if the world isn't rolling out the red carpet for you, like it doesn't do for anybody, you do have the power to take control and make your life better.”
Click here to read the episode's transcription
Making Rainbow Waves is a podcast by ILGA World, telling the stories and raising the voices of LGBTI human rights defenders worldwide.
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Text reads: "Making Rainbow Waves - a podcast by ILGA World - a conversation with Brian Wenke (It Gets Better Project)"
Making rainbow waves, a podcast by ILGA World.
Welcome everybody to Making Rainbow Waves, a podcast telling the stories and raising the voices of LGBTI human rights defenders worldwide.
My name is Daniele Paletta, and in this episode we are going to talk about our World Conference, and the wonderful people who are going to host us.
We have a special guest today: Brian Wenke. He’s the Executive Director of the It Gets Better Project, an organisation with a mission to uplift, empower, and connect LGBTQ youth around the globe. We came together to talk about his personal story, how the meaning of such a powerful statement as “It Gets Better” has changed over the years, what does the organisation have in store for the upcoming ILGA World Conference, and so much more. Here’s what he told us.
Daniele Paletta (host)
Okay, so we're here with Brian Wenke today, the executive director of the It Gets Better Project. They’re hosting us at ILGA World for our World Conference in LA Long Beach in May 2022, so we thought it's a good time to have a chat, learn a little bit more about your organisation, and what do you have in store for us in a few months’ time. So: welcome, Brian!
Thank you, thank you. So happy to be here!
I’d like to start with getting to know you a little bit better. So, could you tell us more about your story as an activist - if ‘activist’ is a term that you would use for yourself? How did you begin getting involved in the LGBTIQ human rights movement, and was there a moment that prompted you to engage in it?
Oh, that's a big question to jump right into - but hey, let's do it with both feet. “Activist”: you know, I've never considered myself an activist: there's like an energy that comes with that, that I've never felt that I've brought to the table. I'm more a pragmatic kind of realist/businessman, but I have been in non-profit my entire career: I've been doing this for the last twenty plus years, and I guess what has sort of defined my career is that I've been able to connect with causes that sing to me personally. That has given me an incredibly varied career - in animal welfare, to healthcare, to the arts, and now serving LGBTQ+ youth.
You know, I think there was probably a reason why it took me so long to move into the queer space, because it's probably of the most personal elements of who I am and what makes me tick. So much of that experience - just starting when you're young - can be internalised, and then you have to spend your entire adulthood working through it, and I finally got to a point in my life where I felt that I was confident enough that I could actually do something to support the community.
I got started in supporting the queer community in general when I was working at the American Cancer Society and I was based in California and I was sort of overseeing all of the LGBTQ+ activations up and down the state - which is essentially Pride activations, marches, that sort of thing, lots of volunteer organising. At the time the organisation had a very large community-based research effort that I worked to engage the queer community to participate in, so that was sort of the “scratching the surface” stage of my work in the community.
I had I just finished my graduate studies, and I was really looking for something different, something new, something where I could f take this new knowledge and apply it in a new way, still staying in the non-profit space. And then I was connected with one of the founders of the It Gets Better Project. It was really just a casual meet & greet because at that point I was like “I don't know what the hell I want to do with my life”, but I really connected with him. It was Seth Levy, one of the voices behind the camera ,and I liked his energy, I liked his vibe and it felt easy, it felt like a natural alignment of where my interests were gravitating to, and how I could actually be an effective leader. So then I just landed here, and I haven't looked back, and I've been here 6 years in March, and it's just been the most incredible experience of my career. Not the easiest, but the most incredible and fulfilling.
I was actually curious to know if there is a moment in all these years, a memory of all your work at It Gets Better, that you particularly cherish.
There have been so many, but I will have to say in in 2019: it was World Pride in New York City. We had representatives from all of our affiliates from around the world, and we were all together: everyone had flags that were representing their country, and we were just sort of marching down through Christopher street, and it was just a very incredible experience. And you know, I don't know if you've been to New York Pride before, but there's just so many people, and the buildings are crawling with people and there's just a lot of beauty, a lot of colours, a lot of emotion, and it was just really nice to kind of reflect on how far the organisation has come by seeing these awesome activists from around the world all joining together and march together. So, that was a beautiful moment: World Pride 2019, New York City.
Going back to the story of It Gets Better: it kind of started with a single video of a coming out story, and it then evolved into a whole global movement that uses storytelling to empower LGBTIQ youth. Over the years, the organisation has evolved into a global campaign and then into something that really offers a wide range of resources to empower queer youth. So, quoting the famous meme: can you tell us more about how it started, how it's going, and also where it's heading to?
When we started, social media was in a very different place than where it is today, and I don't know if I'm either dating myself or just speaking regionally in terms of what was happening, but at the time Facebook was the dominant platform, and at the time there were like 400,000,000 users - which is like a lot, right? but at the same time Myspace was peaking, and Instagram wasn't part of the Meta-universe, and Snapchat and TikTok didn't exist. So, you know, social media was in a very different space.
What we often refer to as “lightning in a bottle” when it comes to our origin story - a viral social media campaign that overnight became a global movement to support queer youth - was really driven by a lot of passionate people behind the scenes that were tapping their networks and finding ways to get this message out there in volumes that ultimately led to this viral movement. It wasn't without a ton of work being done on the backend to kind of catalyse it!
We came about at a time where there were a high number of LGBTQ+ youth who were dying from suicide: these were highly publicized occurrences, and so obviously we were motivated to get in front of queer youth before they would descend into those at-risk behaviours, to instil in them some hope that their lives can get better by sharing the wisdom of older generations who have been through that and got through it successfully to go on to live fully self-actualised and successful lives.
How that's evolved over the years is very much dictated by how the audience that we're trying to engage has evolved: the way that we connect through stories hasn't changed, but the format of those stories has evolved. There are different platforms. There are shorter attention spans. There are different demands as young people just want to navigate the world in a very different way, and so the It Gets Better Project has been in tune with that, and has been following these younger generations as they're emerging to make sure that our storytelling campaign is always going to be relevant, and is going to be feeding young people the information that they want and need now to inform their sexual orientation and their gender identity journey. We are always looking for ways to connect with queer youth and so that's given rise to an education program where we take our stories into classrooms, and it's also informed our global community building efforts.
We now have a global affiliate network that spans four continents and eight languages; we have 19 countries that are represented in our affiliate network - we just brought on Hungary and Panama. These are all independently organised groups that are championing our mission to uplift empower and connect LGBTQ+ youth around the globe in their specific communities, in culturally relevant ways that we just can't do here from the States. We rely on our affiliates to engage with their local queer youth communities in ways that make sense for them, so we're all in this together and it's been great.
Where we're heading? Our vision is a world where all LGBTQ+ youth are free to live equally and know their worthiness and power as individuals, and we have got some way to go with that right? I am a firm believer that as a media-driven organisation we can be the resounding voice that connects with queer youth before they even know they are on a journey, and so I do feel that we can get there - but we just need more of it. We need more affiliates, we need more energy, more consistency with how that message gets out there - so we can capture the attention of queer youth before the world at large gets to them and chips away at their confidence, so they can pick up the tab where older generations left off.
Thanks for sharing all that and I think what you just said is really important: the fact of reaching out to people while the world still hasn't reached them and made them feel they’re wrong… It's incredibly important, and I think it's something that we all share all around the world, no matter what our journey is.
Speaking about the global reach: just as much as ILGA World, It Gets Better is a global organisation, so I was wondering how does the network of all your affiliates remain connected. Is there anything in particular that you're learning from each other?
At least here in in the US where we're based, our work abroad is probably one of the lesser-known things that we do - I think it's just the nature of our culture here in the US where we're not very globally focused, but our organisation absolutely is! One of the ways that we connect is through summits: the It Gets Better Project host summits every year. For example, World Pride was the last time we were able to convene in person and we've been doing it virtually since, but bringing representatives from our affiliate network together to share best practices to talk about the state of LGBTQ+ youth in the fight for civil rights in their local communities... it's been inspiring just to kind of engage with these folks that are all sharing the same mindset.
They want to create a better world for queer people and young people specifically, but how they do it is vastly different, and it is so interesting to see how culture influences the progress of our community.
We all know that progressive, supportive, and protective laws are all great, but they can't stand on their own, and sometimes that conversation shifts against us: we always need to be pressing, we need to be pushing, we need to be providing services where there are gaps, we need to be finding new and creative ways to engage with the community, and our affiliates are doing great stuff. Not all of them are focused 100 % on storytelling. Many of our affiliates in Latin America are focused on offering safe hours where queer youth can actually engage with a mental health professional: we don't do that here in the States. There are other service providers that do that, but we are very supportive of what our affiliates feel are essential needs and services to support local queer youth communities.
Being a global organisation means also to acknowledge that the realities on the ground are not all the same for each of us, although there are some common threads, and that it’s great to find opportunities to listen and to see how we can best support each other: this is also what ILGA World wants to bring to our World Conferences.
It's our thirtieth ILGA World Conference, and you're going to host us in Long Beach from 2 to 6 May 2022 so we're getting quite close: what do you have in store for us?
Oh well, a lot! First of all, Long Beach is like… super queer: you know, it's actually this lovely little pocket in LA County that has like a gay mayor, and a huge gay community. There's lots of support for the queer community and the actual city is excited to bring ILGA and all of these amazing people from around the world to their home. So, there will be an opportunity for people to self-navigate this lovely town of Long Beach.
And then, what we are doing in terms of our hosting responsibilities is we're putting together the social program, which is going to be awesome! I would say that there probably isn't one venue that we have identified that doesn't have like some real awesome like view either of the ocean or of something other that's beautiful. For example, we are going to have an event at the Long Beach Art Museum, we will be entertained by a gay Mariachi band, and so there's lots of fun opportunities to connect with one another in a really awesome setting.
Then, we have also got this really cool thing going at the Aquarium of the Pacific - which is my personal favourite and that's pulling from my background in animal welfare during the early stages of my career. But I think we are going to have a lot of good times, a lot of great forums for people to connect and socialise with one another, and to share all the great stuff that they are going to get during the day from the conference. So, that's what we have got in store: it's going to be a lot of fun.
I'm really looking forward to that and I think we all are, because it's really been a while since our global community has been able to come together in person. I mean: Covid hit - we all know that, and we are navigating that, and there will be safety protocols in place so we are going to make sure that the conference will go on as safely as it gets for everybody - and it has had a huge impact on the whole global community. Lots of things have happened during this couple of years: rights being taken aback, restrictive laws used to target specifically our communities... So I think it's particularly important at this time that we find a place to come together again, and see that we are still here for each other.
So I really, really hope that the World Conference is going to be that occasion for the whole global community. There is still some time to register, so… a little promotional moment here: world.conference.ilga.org.
Yes, promote it! (laughs)
There is still time to register. So please: we're waiting for you!
Yeah, I mean, look: virtual is great. It gives us a way to connect and to keep those conversations going, but nothing beats being able to connect with your peers in person and to participate in the energy that that brings, so I 100% agree with you; go register now, sign up, be a part of this cohort for the thirtieth conference.
What I find particularly relevant is that this is our first World Conference where LGBTIQ youth is front and centre, from the theme of the conference. It Gets Better has always been an organisation which is very much focused on youth, so I was wondering - from your vantage point - how has the presence and contributions of queer youth in the global movement changed over the years?
Social media has played a huge role. You know, young people today… they're digital natives, they don't know a world without the Internet, and that has given rise to frankly like some incredibly self-actualized and highly visible young people that… you know, speaking candidly: kind of scare me, but like in a good way, right? You know they are equipped. When I was a teenager, I was more focused on getting my driver's license because it meant freedom: I wasn't thinking about the needs of the world, right? They weren't weighing on my shoulders the way that they do with young people today. These are teenagers that are studying abroad, that are serving on their local school boards, that are so confident in who they are! I can't help but be proud and see that as a sign that we're heading in the right direction. I have a lot of faith in the youth of today being able to carry the torch forward, because they are absolutely less patient than the older generations, and I cannot wait to see what they do. I'm very encouraged by young people today. Especially queer people.
I hope the conference will be a huge platform for LGBTIQ youth to raise their voices and getting even more involved in the in the global movement. I do have one final question for you, which is again about your organization: I've always found that “it gets better” is such an incredibly powerful statement. It is really something that gives hope to people! So my question is: do you believe that the meaning of the sentence has changed over the years for our global community?
Yeah, I do! I mean, it's definitely changed for us, and you know: this phrase has been analysed over and over again by academics and the general community, but what started out as this kind of balm on a wounded soul has really evolved into a rallying cry, almost like “It gets better, damn it!, and we should accept nothing less than that outcome”. You know: it has become a mantra: even if you're in a dark space you just repeat it over and over. I'm not saying that it doesn't need to be contextualised - because “it gets better” means something different for everybody - but I definitely see it evolve from something that is more of a calming-like, soothing “It's okay” kind of thing, “life will get better”, into “Yes, it gets better, and it gets freaking awesome, and you have a role to play here, and you have value,” right? “And if and if the world isn't rolling out the red carpet for you, like it doesn't do for anybody, you do have the power to take control and make your life better.” That's how I've seen it evolve, and I'm going to stick to that.
Yeah, I think that's quite a powerful view, and I would like to finish it here because it's a great closing! Well, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. We cannot wait to finally meet in person, be at the conference together, share the same space, share the energy that we've been sharing during the organisation of this conference.
Yeah, it's gonna be fantastic.
I just wanted to thank you once more for joining us in this podcast and in this conversation today, and… we will see each other in Long Beach!
Um, right sounds good. Thank you and have a great day!
Making Rainbow Waves is a podcast by ILGA World. This episode was hosted and edited by Daniele Paletta. You can find every episode on all streaming platforms, and transcriptions are available on ilga.org. If you’re interested in our World Conference, you can find more information on worldconference.ilga.org. Thanks for listening.