News and Blogs

The power of social media in the gay rights movement


The importance of the recent sea change in American public opinion on marriage equality is likely lost on many Canadians.

Canada has been on the cutting edge of marriage equality and a leader in protecting the fundamental rights of the LGBT community. Now 10 years since marriage equality was legalized here, the tide is turning in America.

Achieving marriage equality, however, is far from some panacea for the LGBT movement whether in Canada, the U.S. or elsewhere. The fact is, there is little room to pat ourselves on the back and become complacent when discrimination, marginalization and violence remain the norm for LGBT communities around the world, and still too common in our own midst.

I don’t intend to downplay how momentous the shift toward acceptance of same-sex marriage in the U.S. is. The victory is new, emboldening and provides important lessons for progressive activists and campaigners everywhere.

I was reminded of the gravity of the recent victory last week in Austin, Texas, where the Human Rights Campaign swept the awards for best Social and Digital campaigns as well as the prestigious Best in Show award for our marriage equality campaign.

Back in March 2013, Facebook went red for marriage equality as millions of people around the world changed their profile pictures in unity with the Human Rights Campaign's red and pink logo. The viral nature of our organization’s campaign was unprecedented and the display of support for marriage equality created Facebook's most viral campaign in its history.

Youth loom large in our work. All of us at HRC want to create a more welcoming world, and as the Supreme Court started to hear arguments about marriage equality, we wanted to send a message of hope to young people who might not feel accepted, or realize that there is a visible community of people out there who are supportive. That's when I had an idea for a campaign that could harness the power of Facebook. We changed our logo to the colour of love, red, and asked people to adopt it as their profile picture in solidarity with the movement.

For many, this act marked the first time they had come out as a straight ally, or in some cases, the first time they had come out as a member of the LGBT community.

Since then, we've heard countless stories of how the campaign affected them, but one really sticks out for me. We received a message from a gay soldier who had come out to his mother and was not the positive experience he was hoping for. It wasn't until he saw that his mother had also changed her profile picture to the HRC logo that he felt accepted by her. It's incredibly powerful to know that something so simple could provide such a strong feeling of support.

For those of us at HRC, the red logo phenomenon demonstrated what we long knew—the tide is turning on issues of fairness and equality. Today, 59 per cent of Americans now support marriage equality; 87 per cent of Americans know someone who is LGBT and 49 per cent say it's a close family member or friend. These numbers illustrate the trend toward acceptance and our campaign just illustrated that.

And yet despite our success, we know the struggle is far from over. Every day there seems to be a new story — like a high school principal who refuses to include a coming-out story in the yearbook or a state legislature passing "license to discriminate bills" essentially codifying discrimination.

In Canada, the marginalization and bullying of LGBT youth continues to impact their mental well-being; transgender people continue to face discrimination; and in Uganda,NigeriaRussia and a host of other countries people are being beaten or killed simply for being who they are.

We must take the success on the marriage equality issue and build upon it. We need people to continue coming out and speaking their truth whether they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or a straight ally and we need people around the world to stand up for those who need support and continue to love them for who they are, not in spite of it.

I take a lot of pride in the fact that our campaign brought a mother and son back together, and I suspect that it touched a few more hearts along the way. Now, it’s up to all of us to continue the momentum.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.