The “It Gets Better” videos as historical sources

Word cloud based on six "It Gets Better" videos, by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joel Burns, Perez Hilton, Tim Gunn, and Google employees.

The “It Gets Better” project, initiated by sex advice columnist Dan Savage this September in response to a series of suicides by boys and young men bullied by their peers for being gay, or being perceived as gay, has become an undeniable cultural force. Thousands of ordinary people, celebrities, non-profit organizations, and elected officials have created online videos to tell LGBT youth that “it gets better.” Some—most notably the one featuring a public statement by Fort Worth, Texas, city councilman Joel Burns—have gone viral, with over 2.3 million views.

From the perspective of LGBT history, this is a remarkable phenomenon. On the one hand, the participation of so many non-gay celebrities, liberal politicians, and large corporations seems to signal how accepting and embracing gay people has become completely matter-of-course within a large and powerful segment of American society and culture—even extending to the once-taboo, and still always-controversial, matter of gay young people. On the other, much like the growth in straight support for gay people during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the phenomenon relies, to a degree, on depicting gay people as tragic victims. Either way, the outpouring of videos from LGBT people, famous and anonymous, reveals how technological innovation continues to transform the ways LGBT people connect with and contact one another.

The “It Gets Better” messages people have filmed and shared, if properly compiled, cataloged, and preserved, will also be an invaluable resource to future historians studying LGBT life, culture, and politics in the United States in 2010. Even right now, I think they can reveal a lot. Inspired by Cameron Blevins and Julie Meloni, I realized word clouds might offer a quick initial glimpse into the language and themes contributors emphasized in their messages. So I pulled transcripts of six of the most popular videos—President Barack Obama’s, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s, Burns’s, reality TV fashion mentor Tim Gunn’s, gossip blogger Perez Hilton’s, and gay and lesbian Google employees’—from and fed them into Wordle.

The image above is based on the transcripts of all six videos together, and it’s fairly predictable, given the project’s mission. In fact, know, school, life, get, better basically sums up the project’s core message.

But the individual word clouds quickly illustrate some revealing differences and peculiarities. Have a look at them, after the jump. Continue reading “The “It Gets Better” videos as historical sources”

New England roundup #20

Counting paper ballots in Cornwall, VT, in 2004 (cc photo by origamidon)
Counting paper ballots in Cornwall, VT, in 2004 (cc photo by origamidon)
  • With the 2010 elections in the books, the AP declares, “The GOP resurgence sputters in most of New England.” But Jay Newton-Small, of Time, equivocates in a piece titled “The Rebirth of the New England GOP (Or Something Approximating It),” and the Globe argues that the victories Republicans did secure “reflect a resurgence of the uniquely New England stripe of moderate Republicanism that has receded in recent years as the national party has become increasingly conservative on social issues.” All three analyses note that Republican gains were not all that the party had hoped for. Over at the Providence Journal, John E. Mulligan observes that the elections tilted the balance of power in the U.S. House delegation from the Northeast (New England, plus New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) from a 68-15 Democratic advantage to a 55-28 split. And if you missed it, I explored some historical context for the election results in New England earlier this week.
  • The region’s largest wind power project, on Kibby Mountain in Maine, near the Canadian border, is complete. But the future of alternative energy and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is in some doubt with Maine’s election of Paul LaPage—a climate change skeptic and wind power opponent—to replace outgoing governor John Baldacci.
  • Panera Bread Co. is expanding its presence in the New England states, and echoing comments last summer by Papa Gino’s CEO about the region’s unique pizza culture, Panera’s executive chairman declares, “The New England consumer gets Panera. The New England consumer appreciates Panera.” (I’m not exactly sure what there is to “get”—I guess I don’t!)

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

Graphing the Democrats’ rise in New England

One of the things that first spurred me to think seriously about New England’s complex regional history in the twentieth century, and its evolving place within the larger nation, was the Congressional election of 2008, when the Democratic Party swept the last Republican from the six states’ U.S. House seats. The moment seemed to symbolize New England’s status as a liberal outlier, even within a very strong year for Democrats nationwide. Obviously, partisan control of House seats is a crude metric: it obscures more-complex realities in voting patterns for other elected offices, it fails to distinguish between party and ideology, and it doesn’t capture intra-regional diversity very well. Still, the 2008 results—along with other indicators, including the rapid advance of state recognition of same-sex relationships and surveys showing atypically low levels of religious adherence—bespoke a New England that stood apart from the national mainstream.

What intrigued me is when and how this “liberal New England” had come to be, especially given the historical image, and to some significant degree the reality, of flinty Yankee conservatism. Then, in the wake of Tuesday’s election results, which included Republican victories in both New Hampshire U.S. House races, I wondered whether New England was, even by this crude metric, actually all that exceptional any more. So, as a way to start answering these questions, I decided to throw together a quick graph of the historical data on Democrats’ share of New England’s House seats to see what sort of light it could shed.  Here it is:

Graph: Democratic Party Share of U.S. House Seats

After the jump, some amateur, first-impression political science. Continue reading “Graphing the Democrats’ rise in New England”