From Telephone Poles to Smartphones How Technology Has Moved The Needle On Same-Sex Marriage.
When I wrote an article on financial planning issues unique to gay clients back in 2008 for the Journal of Financial Planning, little did I know that it would become part of the record for the California’s Proposition 8 Perry v. Hollingsworth Supreme Court case and add to the discourse on LGBT civil rights. This week LGBT communities will rally in front of the Supreme Court to show support for same-sex marriage in what will hopefully be another watershed moment, representing a significant advance in the rights of the lives of LGBT people. That the Supreme Court is hearing these orals arguments at all is in no small part due to the rapid pace of technology, the Internet, broadband and smartphones. It is common knowledge that the rise in technological advances has changed the world. But how technological advances have aided in the empowerment of LGBT communities is often less clear.
Prior to the Internet, life was very geographically-based. The geographic circles within which people lived, moved and worked were largely their entire world. Unless you happened to live in a major city that had a “gay ghetto” for many members of LGBT communities going outside of these circles usually meant sneaking off to a small, dimly lit bar, often hidden in the shadows and the recesses of communities across the United States. LGBT communities lived in the shadows, in shame and in fear of police raids and arrests.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS crisis necessarily brought homosexuality out of the shadows and to the front pages of American and global newspapers. No longer could gay men hide who they were as a rising tide of HIV infections and AIDS cases affected gay men in the prime of their lives. Whole communities were struck down. The AIDS crisis added to the feelings of shame and self-loathing that often afflicted LGBT communities as discrimination added to fear and ignorance.
Photo from HRC’s Twitter.
The AIDS crisis also had another affect. It galvanized the community to start doing more because time was critical. Organizations like ACT UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis gave rise to LGBT activists who were fighting for their lives and had nothing to gain by being polite. These organizations and activists protested and mobilized for greater AIDS funding and research against a government that was largely deaf to their life-threatening issues. Working on the AIDS Memorial Quilt and witnessing the passing of friends, I recall the ways in which we mobilized people and called them to action. The now largely byzantine methods of organizing via phone trees and the printing and posting flyers on telephone poles at universities were the methods used to get the word out.
As awareness grew, we knew intuitively what later research would only confirm: when a person knows or learns that a friend or family member is LGBT, those people largely change their views and attitudes towards LGBT people. They become more supportive of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, as is evidenced by Senator. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) announcement in support of gay marriage after learning that his son Will was gay. (This is not in every case as we still continue to witness epidemic numbers of homeless LGBT youth.) We also witnessed the rise of LGBT people in the media coming out to serve as role models. Anyone who is LGBT and old enough to remember recalls the lesbian kiss on the Ellen show.
For the LGBT movement to have a significant impact on “moving the needle” in support of LGBT rights, however, the ability to communicate beyond our limited geographic circles became an imperative. Viewing celebrities on television or in the movies that are LGBT was not enough. It still felt like a remote issue and not personal. The LGBT civil rights movement needed a method to amplify its message, yet at the same time make it personal. If LGBT communities were to move from the recesses to the center stage and gain rights, it had to become personal.
Thus came about the confluence of the LGBT community’s civil rights movement with nascent and emerging technologies. The Internet allowed LGBT people to bridge across geographies in a way that no previous technologies permitted. The Internet also allowed LGBT people to safely and discreetly find partners and learn that they are not alone, regardless of where they live, from the comfort and security of their own home. The rise of social media with twitter, Instagram and Facebook and the continuous access via smartphones have only accelerated the decrease in isolation that has long been a part of the LGBT experience. One need only look at Facebook to see the red equal sign that is circulating in support of LGBT marriage.
Now, once again, as LGBT communities we find ourselves organizing on the precipice of history. The historic oral arguments that take place this week will determine Supreme Court decisions about whether same-sex couples will be able to find partners, fall in love, marry and have our relationships recognized by our government. Once again we are organizing. This time, there are no phone trees or flyers being printed and stapled to telephone poles. We are organizing through computers, tablets, smartphones and devices and will be watching and connecting about the rallies taking place across the country and in front of the Supreme Court from the tiny devices we hold our hands, regardless of the geographic location we live. As the LGBT civil rights movement continues to play out across the country, the unsung hero most assuredly will be the technological platforms that enable its acceleration like broadband, wireless, smartphones and tablets that have all played a crucial role in community organizing.