Co-authored by Christopher Wood and Nuala O’Connor, President & CEO, Center for Democracy & Technology
This year has been one of tremendous advances in the quest for LGBT equality. However, as anti-gay foes lose the war against denying LGBT Americans equal marriage rights, the battles have shifted to other grounds including the so-called defense of religion bills that have sprouted all around the country. Fortunately, it seems that the tide is turning as individuals and businesses concerned with equality and discrimination are standing up and speaking out. Shortly after Indiana passed its controversial anti-LGBT religious freedom bill, an unprecedented group of tech industry CEOs spoke out in resounding opposition to the bill. This followed closely on the heels of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s poignant and powerful op-ed in the Washington Post where he spoke out against the bill as well. The tech industry has rightfully pointed out that discrimination is bad for innovation, bad for business, and fundamentally un-American. The tech industry rallying together to support America’s LGBT community means far more than just protecting business though. It is also an important reminder of the profound impact that technology and the Internet have on the lives of minority, marginalized, and repressed communities, including the diverse LGBT community.
LGBT individuals have always been early adopters of technology, especially social media. A recent study found that more than 80% of LGBT respondents utilized social media, compared to 58% of the general population. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of the most likely drivers of this adoption is that LGBT individuals are seeking tools that enable them to find a community of like-minded individuals and are trying to connect with others that they can identify with. This could be a teenage girl grappling with her sexuality or an elderly man in rural America hoping to finally be able to share who he truly is with someone. For so many LGBT individuals, the friends they meet and social networks they create online are the first place they feel accepted and, often, normal. For some, it is the only positive reinforcement they receive about their sexuality and the only place they feel safe to share their most personal thoughts. Even if someone comes from an accepting, open family, it’s likely that the Internet is the first place they turn to when they are questioning their feelings, trying to figure out what it means to “come out,” or seeking timely medical information. The importance of technology to LGBT individuals is magnified as the challenges they face grow. LGBT youth make up more than 40% of homeless youth in America, an astounding number, and cell phones and other smart devices are often their only lifelines to receive help, support, and the information they need to find regular shelter or apply for jobs or schooling. Because of this urgent need and the lack of resources in this area, the LGBT Technology Institute has launched its national Connect 4 Life program, working to get cell phones into the hands of homeless youth and providing vital subsidized service plans to keep them connected. Beyond issues related to mobile connectivity, LGBT individuals are often reliant on public computers and public Internet access to build their networks and find LGBT information.
Unfortunately, many public institutions, including libraries and schools, through lack of awareness or lack of education, censor or filter LGBT content in general, blocking words such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender no matter what context they may appear in. These common terms more often than not point to vital resources about support groups, health services, scholarship opportunities, and suicide prevention hotlines, rather than the “immoral” sites that supporters of censorship fear. Beyond connecting to local communities and information, technology also plays a vital role in bringing LGBT voices together on a national and global stage when it comes to LGBT equality and human rights dialogues. Whether using social media platforms for organizing human rights protests or standing up against repressive governments, technology plays an essential role in amplifying the voice of the global LGBT community. As these voices grow louder, we continue to see incredible and rapid social change that would not be possible without the help of technology. Of course, connecting to those you can identify with, finding support networks, seeking new information, and building a coalition of supporters are important functions for all individuals, not just the LGBT community. In today’s digital world, technology has made some of these needs easier to meet for marginalized communities and individuals, but there are regular challenges to these democratic values being realized online.
It’s important to remember that while technology has the ability to empower, it can also be used to oppress. Revelations of mass and overly invasive government surveillance practices in the US and abroad create a chilling effect on groups that might oppose the government or hold minority views. Data breaches and the sharing of data by third parties raises serious privacy concerns for people who are afraid that their beliefs, sexual identity, or religion could lead to discrimination. And there are also regular attacks on the right for websites to host user generated content, which if successful, would limit the platforms where marginalized populations can coalesce and share.
Most technologies, and the Internet itself, are inherently democratizing forces, but the rights to freely express oneself, to assemble and protests, and to live privately must constantly be reinforced and translated to our “always-on” society. Having the leaders in the tech industry rally in support of the LGBT community was incredibly heartening. Yes, diversity and inclusion are great for business, but the leaders of these businesses understand that their products and services are vital to the lives of LGBT individuals across the US and abroad. With their continued support and advocactey, not only will true LGBT equality be more likely, but it will also be enjoyed by the members of the LGBT community that often feel the most isolated.