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Going Beyond the Gay

Going Beyond the Gay


Boycott Target. Boycott Best Buy. Wear purple on October 20. On National Coming Out Day, colorize your profile picture. It Gets Better. Lady Gaga calls senator to urge ending "don't ask, don't tell." Really, no joke, it's Lady Gaga -- on her mobile phone.

If you're into social media, these are the messages that in 2010 filled your Facebook wall, Twitter feed, and other digital spaces. For LGBT people who feel frustrated that equality is not coming fast enough, social media campaigns allow us to easily voice our inner Norma Rae. They also appeal to our desire to be trendsetters who can ignite, or at least be part of, the next big thing.

But are we really accomplishing anything besides making ourselves feel good? Too often, these digital directives are delivered primarily to our Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and virtual world chums. Those people are either: (1) LGBT; or (2) already supporters because they are, by definition, our pals. It can be preaching to the choir. While any effort to advance pro-gay thought is commendable, these Internet efforts will only achieve results if their messages are spread to large numbers of people outside our immediate circles. They will only bring about change if they "go beyond the gay."

Perhaps because this was an election year, 2010 saw a marked rise in online LGBT campaigns. Some are obscure, some just amusing. On Facebook you'll find "Boycott Urban Outfitters" (1,449 fans) and "Boycott eBay Antigay Agenda" (with only three fans, so there must not be much to protest). Some groups challenge artists, such as "Boycott the Gay Basher 50 Cent" (345 fans). There's even a call to boycott the Twilight film franchise because Stephenie Meyer, author of the books that form the basis of the movies, is supposedly required by her Mormon religion to give 10% of her gross income to the church. Perhaps indicative of how powerful vampires (or maybe Taylor Lautner's abs) can be, only 343 fans have arisen for that "Support Gay Rights: Boycott 'Twilight'" page.

Once in a while, a campaign will stand out from the digital crowd. In 2010 this happened with the "Count Me Out" and "Wear Purple" initiatives. But they both stayed too much within the world of LGBTs and our allies to achieve greater impact.

"Count Me Out" appealed to our gay love of pretty colors. For National Coming Out Day on October 13, people were asked to colorize with rainbow hues their profile pictures on Facebook and other social media, and add the word "Out" or "Ally." I did it and must admit, the colorized photos from my friends looked pretty darn cool. But I was left wondering -- did anyone outside the LGBT community and our close chums really care? Or did we just enjoy feeling like an activist for a day?

I asked the same questions, though to a lesser degree, during the "Wear Purple" viral movement. Canadian teenager Brittany McMillan conceived the idea for an LGBT Spirit Day as a response to the high-profile suicides earlier this year of seven gay boys due to bullying -- most notably the Tyler Clementi tragedy at Rutgers University. Using Tumblr, which provides a Twitter-like feed to the blogging world, Brittany encouraged everyone to wear purple on October 20. The idea spread like wildfire through Facebook, blogs, and other digital environments. But on October 20, the only people I saw wearing purple were either LGBT or already supportive straight allies. Admittedly, this was just personal observation from where I live in Los Angeles. I'm sure there were others across America sporting purple that day. I'm also betting "Wear Purple" had a greater social impact, especially in schools, than "Count Me Out." However, this well-intended initiative spoke largely to people already predisposed to support gay rights.

To win full equality, we need straight people -- and lots of them -- on board. I was tickled pink to run across a Facebook group called "I Refuse to Get Married Until My Gay Friends Can." But I was disheartened to see the group had only 930 members. We need viral campaigns that add many digits to that number.

So what online efforts have produced more impact? Those that achieve a two-part formula: (1) present a message that is spread far beyond the LGBT population; and (2) consequently, capture attention in mainstream media. In 2010 three campaigns achieved some measure of this recipe: Lady Gaga's call to repeal "don't ask, don't tell"; the Target boycott movement; and the It Gets Better video project.

The first example comes from the queen of outrageous costuming, Lady Gaga. When Gaga, wearing a meat dress, was not otherwise occupied at MTV's Video Music Awards on September 12, she spoke out in favor of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" -- just as the Senate was about to vote on the issue. She redirected traffic from her website to the site for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. She recorded a video message for the Senate urging an end to DADT (and even tried to call a senator on her mobile phone). On September 17 that video was posted to YouTube and quickly attracted almost 2.2 million views. YouTube cannot, of course, tell us how many viewers were straight versus gay, but given the large number, it's safe to say the video was watched by more than just LGBT people and our friends. Gaga also tweeted her more than 6 million Twitter followers to contact their senators.

All this led to national media coverage.

Whether Gaga caused anyone (especially straight people) to actually contact their senators is hard to know. But she did have measurable success. During the two weeks after Gaga redirected traffic from her website to SLDN's site, over 314,000 people clicked the "take action" tab on the SLDN site. During that same period, pages on SLDN's website with information about DADT got over 520,000 views; during the two weeks "before Gaga," SLDN's site had only 13,000 visitors and 30,000 page views. Even with Gaga's legion of gay fans, we have to believe at least some of those visitors came from beyond the LGBT community. The Gaga fame machine drove the two-part formula of getting her message delivered "beyond the gay" and garnering mainstream news attention.

Likewise, the Target boycott succeeded with this blueprint. In July it was revealed that retailer Target had donated $150,000 to a political action committee supporting Tom Emmer, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. Because Emmer has strong antigay positions, an outraged LGBT community launched a boycott. On Facebook the page "Boycott Target Until They Cease Funding Anti-Gay Politics" grew to over 82,700 fans. Media coverage ensued, thus repeating the point beyond gays. Mounting pressure ultimately led Target's chief executive, Gregg Steinhafel, to write an apology letter to employees August 5 and to establish a process for reviewing the company's future political donations. "Boycott Target" thus had concrete effect on a major retailer.

In contrast, electronics retailer Best Buy donated $100,000 to the same PAC, but the "Boycott Best Buy" Facebook page attracted only about 7,800 fans. Best Buy's CEO issued a statement, but given the lower heat on his company, he unsurprisingly did not go as far as Target's apology.

Finally, the 2010 initiative that best succeeded in going beyond the gay is the It Gets Better video series. In September sex columnist Dan Savage launched the project after reading about a 15-year old gay teen who committed suicide after being targeted by bullies. Savage had people record videos to directly tell gay youths that "it gets better." In a short time, more than 700 videos were posted to the project's YouTube channel, generating over 10 million total views. Adding music to the mix, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles even filmed a powerful rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" as its contribution.

The It Gets Better message resonated universally, perhaps because (unlike DADT or same-sex marriage debates) preventing youth suicide does not trigger political controversy. Straight celebrities posted videos. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even President Obama recorded their own messages. Combined with national media coverage, Clinton and Obama's participation propelled the project far and wide. It Gets Better turned into national discourse in schools, homes, and communities -- all because it went beyond the gay.

The lesson from these digital initiatives is simple: Winning the LGBT rights battle will require that we preach not just to our choir. We must also preach to the congregation -- tens of millions of straight Americans who have little contact with gay people or who are not already our committed supporters. And it's not enough for us to just send online initiatives to our straight pals. We must ask them to take a further step: Post to their digital walls, send to their newsfeeds, and click the "share" button to pass the message on to their family and friends who are outside the inner circle of gay.

To all of my Internet-savvy brothers and sisters in the LGBT community, by all means, please continue dreaming up those creative digital campaigns. Go launch a Facebook group to boycott retailers who take anti-LGBT positions. Go tweet for everyone to wear fuchsia, plum, lavender, or other shades of purple. Go post videos onto YouTube to teach LGBT youth that life gets better ... and even do it in song. But by all means, whatever message you cast into the evolving world of social media, go beyond the gay.

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