Calvin Stowell, 26
New York City
An organization known as Do Something first got Calvin Stowell’s attention when one of his musical muses was set to appear at its annual Do Something Awards, a VH1-partnered broadcast billed as “the premier award platform for young people and social change.”
“It was Demi Lovato’s first post-rehab performance,” confesses the 26-year-old pop culture aficionado. “I had to watch it, because I love Demi.”
By the end of the show, though, Stowell was hooked on more than Lovato’s crooning. He visited DoSomething.Org and learned about the not-for-profit. With a membership of at least 2.5 million, the organization inspires people age 25 and under to activism and volunteering in more than 250 national campaigns, many of which deal with issues vital to LGBT people, such as homelessness and HIV prevention.
Intrigued by the positive message, Stowell applied for a job as a social media associate. He got it. Then in the course of three years, his responsibilities have grown from posting on Facebook and Twitter to the oversight of all public communication, as well as coordination with Do Something’s marketing team to find the right celebrities that motivate young people to action. Now, he's the director of digital and content at Do Something.
One of the campaigns he's most proud of is Teens for Jeans, a partnership with the clothier Aeropostale. People are encouraged to donate “gently used” denim to homeless youth throughout the country. The cause is dear to Stowell, since homelessness disproportionately affects LGBT youth.
“One in three of the people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. are young — they’re under the age of 18,” he says. “We went to the shelters that service these young people, and we talked to them, and we said, 'What is the number one thing that you would want?' Everyone assumes they want a cell phone or they want tech items or whatever. But the number one thing they want is a pair of jeans, because they go to school every day like every other kid. But you can wear the same pair of jeans for a week in a row, and no one is going to say, 'Are you poor? Why are you wearing those jeans over and over again?' No, it’s socially acceptable. We thought that the shelters didn’t really have that many jeans. And if they did, they were jeans that someone’s grandmother donated. Young people didn’t really want to wear them.”
The campaign has been a huge success. Since 2008, more than 4 million jeans have been collected, with more than 12,000 schools participating in 2014 alone. Celebrities including Chloe Grace Moretz, Kristin Bell, and, appropriately, Demi Lovato have signed on to the cause, lending their voices and support through ads and social media outreach.
Stowell’s own online clout — he has about 45,000 followers on Twitter — has influenced young people to give a damn about heavy things like the recent death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot by Missouri police, alongside his live-tweeting of a recent One Direction concert, where band member Harry Styles noticed the 20-something man amid a sea of teenage girls and serenaded him and blew kisses.
LGBT people have a powerful tool in influencing allies, Stowell has discovered, and it's social media. He is one of the best at knowing how to put it to work.
But perhaps the most powerful form of online activism, he says, is coming out.
“Coming out is the bravest thing someone can do, and it’s definitely the thing that changes perceptions the fastest,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to hate someone when you know them and you’ve loved them your entire life. Kids are coming out younger and younger. They’re living their lives online, where they can a find community of people like them. But they can also broadcast a message out to everyone, like my very dear friend Tyler Oakley. His [YouTube] audience, the vast majority of them are women — teenage girls, mostly. For him to be able to reach an audience of millions of teenage girls and get them on board with equality is incredible. So I just love people like Laverne Cox and Tyler Oakley — anyone that can use the platform that they’ve been given to educate, because I think it’s so valuable.”
And getting straight allies, Stowell says, is “incredibly important” to changing the political and social mood in the country toward LGBT people. In fact, his brother Craig is emblematic of the power straight allies have when they can capture social media.
Stowell, who is originally from New Hampshire, first made headlines in 2011 when Craig — a straight Republican, a former Marine, and a veteran of the Iraq War — wrote an open letter to the New Hampshire legislature, urging lawmakers not to take away his brother’s right to marry. At the time, a Republican supermajority, many of whom were backed by the antigay group National Organization for Marriage, were attempting to repeal the state’s marriage equality statute, and Craig’s argument that “no real conservative believes government should be managing the personal lives of any decent law-abiding citizen” struck a chord in the Live Free or Die state. The Human Rights Campaign took notice of this impact and recruited the brothers to help campaign against the repeal. Ultimately, they were successful. The repeal failed, and the Stowells became the faces of what can be accomplished when allies — and family — work together.
In the years since marriage equality was won in New Hampshire, Calvin Stowell has emerged as a leader in harnessing the power of the Internet to effect positive change. The might that just one person can harness with social media makes it so valuable, Stowell says.
“I love when we get to use our own voice to tell our own stories, and I think the Internet has really made that possible for everyone,” Stowell says. “There’s dozens of gay white men that have found their voice online, but now we’re seeing the emergence of trans women of color, and people that literally were erased from existence who are now getting their own stories. I think that’s incredibly powerful.”
And with his help and each person's own sense of empowerment, the whole world will hear.