Technology: The LGBT Community’s Unsung Hero

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

In June the Supreme Court is scheduled to issue rulings on two cases that are important to the LGBT community, Hollingsworth v. Perry (the Proposition 8 case) and United States v. Windsor (the Defense of Marriage Act case). The LGBT community and its allies hope that the resolution of these cases will be a watershed moment representing a significant advance in the rights of LGBT people. The fact that the Supreme Court is even hearing oral arguments in these cases at all is in no small part a result of the rapid growth and accelerating adoption of technology, the Internet, broadband and smartphones. It is commonly accepted that technological advances have changed the world, but how technological advances, especially the rapid growth of the Internet over the last 20 years, have aided in the empowerment of LGBT communities is often less clear and far less discussed. Prior to broad deployment of the Internet, life, especially life as an LGBT individual, was mostly limited by geography. The geographic circles within which LGBT people lived, moved and worked were largely our entire world when it came to LGBT contacts. Unless we happened to live in a major city that had a “gay ghetto,” going outside 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, often in shame and in fear of police raids and arrests. There have certainly been examples of equality and empowerment, such as the Stonewall riots or the March on Washington, but amplifying these geographic events was difficult without means of mass communication, and with limited means of disseminating information to maintain momentum and raise awareness. In the 1980s and 1990s the AIDS crisis forced homosexuality out of the shadows and onto the front pages of American and global newspapers. No longer could gay men easily hide who they were; the 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 often added to those feelings of shame and self-loathing that afflicted LGBT communities, as discrimination added to fear and ignorance. The AIDS crisis also had another effect: It galvanized the community to start doing more, because time was critical. Organizations like ACT UP, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the AIDS Memorial Quilt and others gave rise to LGBT activists who were fighting for their lives and had nothing to gain by being polite, and everything to lose. These organizations and activists protested and mobilized in increasing numbers 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 those times and 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 of flyers on telephone poles at universities were the accepted methods used to get the word out. As awareness of gay people grew in the media and across America’s homes, we knew intuitively what later research would only confirm: that when a person knows or learns that a friend or family member is LGBT, those people are much more likely to positively change their views and attitudes toward LGBT people. They become more supportive of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage (as is evidenced by Sen. Rob Portman’s [R-Ohio] announcement in support of gay marriage after learning that his son Will is gay). We also began witnessing the increasing rise of LGBT people represented in the media and coming out to serve as role models. Anyone who is LGBT and old enough to remember still probably recalls the lesbian kiss on Ellen. At that