Social Media and the LGBT Community
Social and online media have been used as tool, not just for disseminating information but as a way to represent marginalized groups. Social media, particularly Twitter, have given a greater voice to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities around the world. Individuals and groups have used social media to gather, physically and virtually, to promote and support LGBT issues and rights — and they have done so in countries that are both are tolerant and intolerant of LGBT rights.
This case study considers how different countries of the world — the United States, Russia and Egypt — have used social media to give voice to those who have been previously quieted by society.
PROBLEM STATEMENT — The history of LGBT communities is laced with hardship over their political and economic rights under the law, their social acceptance and their personal safety. Members of these diverse communities have suffered discrimination, violence, and a denial of their very identity.
In the past decade, countries around the world have seen tremendous growth in support for people who identify as LGBT (or other sexual orientations and identities that differ from heterosexuality). At the same time, there has also been a huge growth of Internet and social media use.
This case focuses on how social media have been used as a resource by LGBT communities and their allies as a way to rally and gain support and rights for their members in ways that were impossible before the Internet.
Social and Political Changes for LGBT Communities in the United States
IN THE UNITED STATES, LGBT rights have expanded rapidly with the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in 13 states and the District of Columbia. With the surge of support for LGBT rights, (as of 2013 roughly between 49 and 58 percent of the U.S. population supports same-sex marriage) there has been a surge in LGBT social media campaigns.
The “It Gets Better Project” was one of the first social media campaigns that successfully reached out to teens — both gay and straight. The 2010 campaign started after Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas, two American teenage boys, committed suicide after intense bullying for being gay. Dan Savage, a sexual health columnist and his partner Terry Miller used YouTube to post an eight-minute video describing Savage’s own struggles as a gay man and how he overcame harassment and unacceptance. He was joined by young and old gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and allied supporters, speaking out about their own experiences and how their lives as adults “got better” — even with their hardships. Within months, dozens of other celebrities created their own videos calling for support of LGBT teens and the end of bullying. Within three years the project has gathered more than 50,000 user-created videos in support of LGBT teens, including videos from President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
LGBT activists in the United States have also used Twitter to gain supporters. Activists’ remarkable success at reaching out to a broad community via Twitter has suggested that social media may be more effective in raising awareness, especially among youth, than traditional media. In 2013 U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted his support of same-sex marriage shortly after the Supreme Court overruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that would have allowed states to deny marriage and the financial benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. Obama’s short tweet reached 150 million people — a number that dwarfs the audience of newspapers, broadcast television and radio.
Other social media campaigns by US-based LGBT activists to raise awareness for the cause, include an initiative started by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) which encouraged marriage equality supporters to change their Facebook profile picture to the HRC “equality” logo. The picture below is a data analysis of the counties across the U.S. where Facebook users changed their profile photo to show support for marriage equality.
Growing Political Oppression and Backlash in Russia
In Russia, LGBT activists have faced greater challenges to using social media on behalf of LGBT rights in part due to legislation. On June 30, 2013, for example, the lower house of Parliament passed a measure into law that “ban[ned] the promotion of homosexual propaganda and mandate[d] stiff fines and jail terms for violators.” The law in effect made it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as to distribute material on gay rights.
As a consequence, in July 2013, a group of four Dutch tourists who were working on a documentary in Russia about gay rights were arrested for “promoting homosexual relations among minors” and subsequently were banned from entering Russia for three years.
Also in July 2013, prominent Russian gay activist, Nikolai Alexeyev, who created an online petition with an intent to blacklist visas for Yelena Mizulina and Vitaly Milonov — two Russian lawmakers who he said were responsible for the federal law —was in turn, threatened with a criminal case by the two lawmakers.
Because Russia is limiting people’s voices with its new legislation, Russians and others from all over the world took to social media to protest this law and stand up for the LGBT community.
Dan Savage, founder of “It Gets Better,” called on his blog for a boycott of Russian vodka in response to the law. Savage picked out the popular Stolichnaya and Russian Standard brands and used the hashtag #dumpStoli to popularize the campaign. The campaign was also backed by Queer Nation, an LGBT American activist group, as well as the Russian-American gay rights group Rusa LGBT.
In response to the #dumpStoli campaign, bars in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia stopped serving the two brands. Following all of this, Stolichnaya’s Lativa-based manufacturer, the SPI Group and founder Val Mandeleev, posted an open letter condemning “the dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government” and stating that Stolichnaya “has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community.”
Even celebrities, such as Lady Gaga who is a prominent supporter of equal rights, has taken to raising her voice where she posted support on Facebook to Russians (see below):
The Twitter Revolution in Egypt and Its impact in the EGYPTIAN LGBT community
Ten years before the “Arab Spring,” on May 11, 2001, Egyptian police raided a gay nightclub on the Queen Boat in Cairo and arrested 52 homosexuals, then tortured and
raped some of those in detention. Twenty-three of those arrested “were convicted for debauchery and defaming Islam and sentenced up to five years in prison with hard labour.” The national media published the names, photos and professions of those arrested, in a bid to publically humiliate them and their families.
Ten years later a new Egypt emerged in Tahrir Square, Cairo, which took down President Hosni Mubarak. But even after the ouster of Mubarak, LGBT activists struggled for their rights; the LGBT community’s bid for recognition did not meet with universal acceptance: “Riding the revolutionary wave after the ouster of Mubarak, some gay activists called for an LGBT stand on Tahrir…but were quickly silenced by others in the community” (Beltrew, 2013).
That prompted rethinking. Twitter and Facebook did not cause the Arab revolutions, but were used as powerful tools to communicate breaking events and to organize and schedule protests and demonstrations. So LGBT activists also turned to social media. Ramy Youssef, a young gay Egyptian, used Twitter to enlist support for other LGBT Egyptians. Yosef, 21, came out about his sexuality through Twitter and was consequently shunned by his family, and beaten up and robbed by others in his community. Then through his anti-homophobia campaign on Twitter, he attempted to “bring a community together.” His tweets quickly went viral and “within hours [they] had drawn thousands of re-tweets and mentions, quickly gaining support from mainstream activists and celebrities.” Youssef also mounted Facebook events to emphasize and bring up issues of homophobia, while also
making others aware of the unacceptable homophobic language used in the country.
Youssef is one example of how social media can help narrate events, share news and create a public forum. Global Voices, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists, for example, reported on how the Twitter hashtag that Youssef used had created a space for dialogue between both Egyptian supporters and opponents of LGBT rights: #ضد_رهاب_المثلية (Against homophobia).
LGBT activists had found an online place to raise their voices and create larger campaigns for acceptance and recognition. In 2013, for example, “in honor of the Queen Boat incident, gay rights activists in Egypt decided to mark May 11 as the ‘Egyptian Day Against Homophobia’ (EDAHO).” That week, activists launched online campaigns to get supporters to tweet and blog for LGBT rights.That same year pro-LGBT activists transformed “an anti-gay mural on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, which took a swing at the city’s cops calling them gay.
” Activists altered the homophobic graffiti to promote a pro-gay message. A young Arab woman, Leil Zahra Mortada, later shared the before and after photos of the mural (below) on Facebook, which caused much discussion and debate on LGBT issues:
Conclusion to case study
Youths and political activists around the world have been early adopters of social media, recognizing the personal and professional opportunities that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have offered. Civil rights movements have followed in their wake, noting that social media excels at exactly what they need to do: identify, educate and mobilize diverse groups. The global LGBT community has used Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other platforms to shape people’s attitudes towards LGBT issues. Via social media, LGBT groups have offered support to members of the community, and have gathered together the critical mass of voices that is needed to effect change, such as the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. In countries where LGBT members have been under attack, such as in Russia and Egypt, social media has taken on an advocacy role, hoping via greater transparency to ameliorate repression and ultimately build local support for LGBT issues.