By NOELLE CROMBIE
PORTLAND, Ore. – Dwight Holton, who until Friday was the top federal prosecutor in Oregon, emailed his staff last summer asking if anyone wanted to participate in an “It Gets Better” video.
The videos are part of a national project started by Seattle writer and columnist Dan Savage to reassure and support gay and lesbian youth who feel alone and harassed. The It Gets Better Project began in 2010 in response to instances of gay teens who committed suicide after being bullied. Its 25,000 videos — including those by President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, scores of celebrities and politicians — have been viewed more than 40 million times, according to the project’s website.
Last week, Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s Office became the first federal prosecutor’s office in the country to chime in with its own message of encouragement.
The video, which is 6 minutes and 22 seconds long, features a handful of prosecutors and staff who candidly reveal their own experiences. One woman describes the relief her teenage son felt after coming out. Another woman talks about being bisexual in a conservative community. Yet another describes being bullied as a young person because she was dating an African-American teen.
Cheryl Root, a paralegal, said “it was like a big weight had been lifted” off her son when he announced he was gay.
“I think the biggest thing for kids today is to understand that the fear of actually telling someone is greater than the event itself so don’t isolate, don’t hold it in,” Root says in the video. “Find somebody you trust as opposed to holding onto a secret.”
Adrian Brown, an assistant U.S. attorney who works on civil rights cases, talks about being harassed in high school because she, a Caucasian, was dating an African American. She finally decided to confide in her parents.
“They helped to stop it,” she said in an interview with The Oregonian. “They were just so supportive. They made me feel like I had protection and that I could continue to be who I was. They helped me become the woman I am and a lot of that was the was they dealt with that situation.”
Each U.S. attorney staffer offers a hopeful message, encouraging young people to talk to a trusted friend or family member and to hold their schools accountable when they feel bullied.
“If there is bullying out there, your school has the job to make life safe for you at school,” Ron Silver, chief of the civil division, says in the video. “That is what your school is supposed to do. And here at the United States attorney’s office, our job is to hold your school accountable.”
In the video, Silver describes the isolation he felt when he developed breasts at age 15. He said he spent five years feeling ashamed. Surgery corrected the problem when he was 20, but it took years to recover from that painful chapter of his life.
“All those years of hiding took their toll,” he says. “It took me a long time to stop hiding. So if you are hiding because you are gay, bisexual, transgendered … don’t hide. Don’t keep yourself from the world.”
In an interview with The Oregonian, Silver said he decided to tell his story because he thought it might help someone else.
“It seemed like a story worth telling,” he said. “I am 60 years old now and it’s OK with me if somebody sees that and thinks I am a freak. That’s fine. I am way past that place. If doing what I did can help somebody, that’s not a hard choice.”
Ever since he heard Savage talk about the “It Gets Better” project, Holton said making a video has been on his to-do list. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he put out the call for participants, and he was moved by his colleagues’ willingness to share their personal experiences. Since the video was posted to Youtube last week, he’s heard from other U.S. attorneys across the country interested in doing their own videos.
Holton served as Oregon’s U.S. attorney since February 2010. Obama’s appointee, Amanda Marshall, was sworn in Friday.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office has a tremendous capacity to make change in the community,” he said. “This is an opportunity we couldn’t miss. We have credibility and forcefulness as a voice in the community that lots of folks don’t have.
“When we weigh in to say we’re on your side, it matters,” he said.