The United States has evolved immensely in the 20 years since Matthew Shepard’s death galvanized the nation and brought worldwide attention to hate crime legislation at all levels. The tragedy birthed a fervent outcry that still resonates in films and on stage, particularly in The Laramie Project, which continues to play in regional theaters across the nation. Shepard’s murder galvanized the push for LGBTQ civil rights and shined a spotlight on the deadly ramifications of unfettered homophobia and hate. In a 1999 op-ed for The New York Times, essayist Frank Rich wrote that the “homophobic epidemic of ’98, which spiked with the October murder of Matthew Shepard ... turned into the homophilic explosion of ’99.”
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, gay men and lesbians had been one of the most-hated groups in the country, with 75 percent saying they disapproved of homosexuality. By 1996, disapproval rates had dropped to 56 percent. (Back then, bisexual and transgender folks weren’t even on the radar in the mainstream; both were stigmatized and marginalized, even by gays.) Yet in 1998, only 55 percent of Americans reported they had a “gay friend or acquaintance,” according to a report by what is now the National LGBTQ Task Force.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that number had grown to 87 percent. Nearly nine out of 10 U.S. adults today say they have a gay friend or acquaintance. That dramatic change can be traced to a number of causes, including a larger number of queer folks coming out of the closet, and a greater representation in popular culture. Without a doubt, social media has also played a tremendous role in increasing queer visibility.
Those who grew up listening to cassette tapes or dialing into AOL may never have anticipated the power social media would play in the new millennium, much less the control it now wields on social constructs. When YouTube launched in 2005, most users viewed it as a platform to upload funny videos. But activist Tyler Oakley saw a much bigger opportunity.
“I would come home from my 9-to-5 and I would do my own stuff,” Oakley says of his beginnings. In a few short years after building an online presence, he became a recognizable face synonymous with the evolving platform. To date, Oakley has gained over 650 million views and over 7.7 million followers on YouTube alone. He has more than 23 million followers across all platforms (that’s twice as many as the number of Americans who watch Game of Thrones). In addition to his impressive fan base, Oakley has been honored as an important influencer by Time magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, and he landed on both Forbes’s 30 Under 30 and Out magazine’s Power 50 lists this year.
“I went to school thinking maybe someday I’ll work for a nonprofit. I had an internship with the Trevor Project,” Oakley says of the LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization founded in 1998, seven months before Shepard’s murder. Oakley has raised over $1 million for the nonprofit. “I really wanted to work in social media in some way.” He adds that at the time no one thought being a YouTuber could become a real job. In fact, convincing companies they should even have a social media presence proved difficult. Nowadays, it’s a requirement.
“Social media at its very best is a place where you can feel connected in ways that you might not feel in your everyday life,” he says of the importance of digital communication for LGBTQ visibility. Particularly given traditional media’s limited queer representation, which he says, was typically a “white gay character … full of stereotypes and usually written by straight people. Now I think a lot of people are saying that’s not all [of] our community, and if traditional media isn’t going to give us that representation, we’re going to give it to ourselves.”
LGBTQ people are choosing to come out online in record numbers, according to the LGBT Helpline, a national support service. In the past, coming out tended to be a personal experience, but thanks to Facebook and Twitter, more people are choosing to use social media to publicly tell their family and friends how they identify.
Through social media, LGBTQ people have gained broader visibility and influence. That’s one reason Oakley says it’s important to celebrate content creators — and more important, to give them opportunities to share their unique voices.
This year, Oakley is helping do just that by teaming up with GLAAD to engage the organization’s Rising Stars Grant Program. It helps fund the work of young content creators who are using digital media or technology to improve the LGBTQ narrative online and in their communities.
“They are storytellers, and they’re politicians, and they’re artists, and they’re leaders and students; and for all of them — they’re queer and they’re iconic in their own ways,” Oakley says proudly of this year’s winners. “When I met these young people, I felt like I was meeting the future leaders of HRC and GLAAD and GLSEN. I was meeting the people that are going to lead movements I don’t even know are going to exist yet, and I felt like the future is bright.”
Oakley says it is also “important to celebrate the people that are doing something local and who are changing their communities.” After all, “that’s how real change happens and that’s how a state or a town that might be historically homophobic can change in just one generation. ... Anybody can go to the town hall and be that voice that makes somebody feel less alone, or to call their mayor or their school principal to make a change happen that might make their community or their school more inclusive. That’s the type of leader I really want to celebrate, and that’s what GLAAD’s program really does.”
No doubt, the fight for LGBTQ equality is rooted in the ashes of tragedy. Names like Harvey Milk, Sylvester, Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo, and Matthew Shepard cry out from the pages of history. Their stories encourage countless queer people to validate their own identity and to join the fight for equal protections for LGBTQ people around the world. We owe it to them.
“Twenty years ago, Matthew Shepard being killed may have brought together the community in ways it had never been brought together before in solidarity,” Oakley says, but Americans need to pay equal attention to what’s happening now, with the meaningless murders of trans people (at least 28 deaths in 2017 alone, mostly women of color). “I hope our community isn’t being desensitized to that,” he says. “We should be rallying behind all of this.”
One solution, Oakley suggests, is to reevaluate what it means to be an ally, saying it requires “stepping up every single day in those small ways. Not assuming people know you’re an ally. It’s standing up when it’s a weird and awkward conversation and calling things out when they happen.”
He adds, “Don’t be afraid to get uncomfortable. When you’re uncomfortable, it’s probably because you’re challenging something or an ideology that is too comfortable for people to get used to. If your intention is to be more inclusive, loving, and sympathetic, you’re probably doing a step toward the right direction of being a beacon of hope or light in your community.”
Photography by Luke Fontana
Photo assistant Dillon Matthew
Glam Calvin Scott
Glam Blondie for Exclusive Artists, using MAC Cosmetics
Stylist Aisha Rae
Assistant stylist Angel Cross