Pioneers of the Gay Rights Movement used the riots at the Stonewall Inn to propel their own civil rights movement in 1969. Today, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender movement is utilizing social media to fuel that same agenda. At the time of the uprising the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the act of homosexual sex -- even in private homes -- was considered a crime. Since those riots in front of the Stonewall Inn and the subsequent establishment of the annual Gay Pride Parade, the LGBT community (like racial and religious groups before it) has sought the right to receive equal treatment under the law.
In the pre-Stonewall era, communication about gay rights was limited. The night of the first Stonewall riot, the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest homophile organizations in the United States, used a mimeograph machine to print 5,000 leaflets that criticized police raids on gay bars. The leaflets were distributed throughout the city, and by the next evening hundreds more people -- gay and straight alike - had joined the fight at Stonewall against the NYPD. Five months later, leaflets again helped to mobilize participants in the Gay Pride Parade on November 2, 1969.
In the 21st century, more traditional marketing techniques are no longer enough to reach our hyper-connected, global society. Now LGBT activists rely on social media instead of leaflets, taking their fight for equality and acceptance online. Here are three examples of innovative media campaigns that have propelled the LGBT movement recently:
Facebook Relationship Status
On February 17, 2011, Facebook added two more relationship status options to the traditional "single" or "married" relationship options: "in a civil union" and "in a domestic partnership." The change was the result of lobbying by organizations such as GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the Human Rights Campaign, and GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network), all of which are members of Facebook's Network of Support created in October of 2010 to combat the recent surge in cyber-bullying. Gay rights supporters applauded the additional relationship statuses. "In most places, gay Americans can't yet marry, but they may be able to formalize their relationship short of marriage," Richard Socarides, former gay rights advisor to Bill Clinton and president of Equality Matters, told the Huffington Post. "This [Facebook] change reflects that reality."
GLSEN has also created its own campaign called "Think B4 You Speak" designed to raise awareness about the consequences of anti-LGBT language and behavior with the ultimate goal of creating a more positive environment for LGBT teens. Much of the homophobic language that LGBT teens hear throughout the school day is unintentional: teens perceive "that's so gay" to be a part of their vernacular rather than a slur. This online, social media, and television campaign targets kids and teens who cause the most psychological and physical harm to their gay peers. The campaign slogan "Don't say 'That's so gay'" has been uttered in commercials by tween pop idols (Hilary Duff) and NBA All-Stars (Grant Hill) in an effort to curb ignorant and hurtful language. GLSEN aired the NBA-themed commercials, tailored toward kids and teens who look up to NBA players as role models, throughout the NBA playoffs and finals; the finals alone drew an average of 17.3 million viewers this year, according to the Nielson Company.
The campaign's website, ThinkB4YouSpeak.com, also counts the number of times offensive words such as "fag," "dyke," and "so gay" have been used on Twitter each day. Above the official Twitter count reads GLSEN's goal for the number of times these words are used on Twitter: zero.
It Gets Better
A final social media sensation that has allowed the gay pride movement to coalesce and gain momentum is the "It Gets Better" video campaign on YouTube. Whereas both the change in the Facebook relationship statuses and ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have been used to deliver messages to the non-gay community, "It Gets Better" speaks directly to the LGBT community. Seattle advice columnist Dan Savage spearheaded the movement. After the suicide of Billy Lucas, one of the nine known suicides that occurred from homophobic bullying in September 2010 alone, Savage realized that LGBT high-schoolers who were choosing to end their lives could not envision a happier existence beyond high school. As an adult who'd undergone the same bullying, Savage needed to give them hope.
The first "It Gets Better" video featured Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, as they share their high school experiences and their more positive and life-affirming experiences since high school -- namely meeting one another and starting a family together. Since that initial video, tens of thousands of videos have been posted, including videos by Neil Patrick Harris, Kathy Griffin, Lady Gaga, Pixar Studios, and President Obama. The message of these videos is different from the traditional "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" mantra of the Stonewall era. Putting politics aside, it allows adults to reach out to the younger generation. In May, the videos were featured in a commercial for the web browser Google Chrome, underscoring the fact that social media is the LGBT movement's most powerful tool in the 21st century. The commercial concludes "the web is what you make of it," and the LGBT community has fully embraced that concept.
Eliana Dockterman is a Humanities Major at Yale University and currently an intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
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