President Obama Joins the "It Gets Better Project"

The online video series, created by sex columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry in response to recent LGBT teen suicides, has reached the White House. Savage talks to Big Think about its success.

You know an Internet meme has gone viral when it reaches the White House. Today, President Obama released a three-minute video as part of sex columnist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better Project," an online video series created in response to a spate of recent suicides by teens that were bullied for being (or appearing to be) gay.


In the clip, Obama speaks directly to young LGBT Americans, urging victims of bullying to reach out to friends and adults who can provide support. "Things will get better," he reassures. "And more than that, with time you're gonna see that your differences are a source of pride and a source of strength." A growing number of straight celebrities and politicians, including Hillary Clinton, have added their voices the chorus of thousands who have recorded videos in recent weeks. "I don't know what it's like to be picked on for being gay," said the President, "but I do know what it's like to grow up feeling that sometimes you don't belong; it's tough."

Savage recorded the first video with his husband Terry a little over a month ago. "However bad it is now, it gets better," he insisted. "Your life can be amazing but you have to tough this period out and you have to live your life so that you're around for it to get amazing." Savage stopped by the Big Think studio earlier this week to talk about the importance of the "It Gets Better Project," monogamy, the religious right, and gay fatherhood, among other things. 

"I felt forever that I’d hear about a gay kid committing suicide and I’d think I wish I could have talked that kid for five minutes," Savage explains. "I would have been able to tell him it gets better, but I couldn’t talk to those kids. Their schools, their parents, their churches aren’t going to bring in openly gay adults to talk to bullied gay kids about our lives and that it is wonderful to be an openly gay adult and what is happening as gay and lesbian and bi and trans people all over the world woke up and realized we didn’t need anyone’s permission anymore to talk to these kids that we could make videos.  We can get on YouTube.  We can use Twitter and Facebook and speak to them directly and if need be really go over the heads of their parents, go over the heads of their teachers and school administrators and go over the heads of their preachers and reach out to them directly and save their lives."

Savage also shared his coming out story, which we will publish next week, along with the rest of his interview, as part of our Coming Out: Stories of Gay Identity series

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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Image: Abel Suyok
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