A Tech-Powered Gay Rights Movement

The LGBT community has always been an early adopter of Internet and the opportunities it presented for personal and professional activism. In fact, it was a necessity for a slice of the American public faced with few legal rights that faced hostility and violence just for being who they were.

In the 1990s, when AOL ruled the roost of online communication, there were bustling chat rooms. While many were geared to the novelty of hooking up online (as it was for the straight world), for many LGBTs in padlocked closets who lived in remote, extremely anti-gay small towns, it was their first time making any kind of social connection to others who shared their pain and their dreams of equality. These were not connections to LGBT advocacy organizations led by cosmopolitan power gays; this was the germination of grassroots activism online.

Fast forward to today. With web sites, blogs, and social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, the online LGBT community has emerged as an example of both leadership and rabble-rousing success. It is a community shaping the equality agenda, by using just a few clicks of the mouse, diligence and taking advantage of the speed of the Internet that confounds, perplexes and often frustrates offline establishment LGBT advocacy organizations.

It's a headless monster in many ways -- digital activists in this world are frequently not Big Gay insiders. They are often part-time activists -- people who feel strongly about issues and use the Internet daily. They never intended to lead or even follow movement leaders; they are just handy with the Internet tools of the trade, and have something to say about equality that resonates with readers.

The irony is that traditional LGBT organizations want desperately to replicate the success and speed of online grassroots activists. But their very structure -- non-profits built on top-down management decision-making that is always beholden to influential donors -- cripples them in ways the independent LGBT Netroots never have to be concerned about.

And that goes for LGBT news media as well. Feeling the same financial pain the traditional print publications are experiencing with the economic downturn and drop in ad revenue, there is no pleasure in seeing LGBT publications shutter. Bloggers and activists are highly dependent on the strength of news media with an LGBT focus that has a budget to send reporters to do stories the online activists simply don't have the funds to do. It's a symbiotic relationship as well -- many LGBT reporters want their stories linked on high-traffic or influential gay blogs because it expands their reader reach, and builds support to continue doing the work critical for both journalism and the equality movement overall.

Here's an oddity about the growth of online activism: experienced grassroots offline activists are often less well-connected to Internet activists than you would think. Field work, equally important to the movement, doesn't require knowledge of Twitter, for instance, and so many long-time successful activists are just getting their feet wet on the Internet.

But what does the world of the online amateur LGBT activist have to show for itself? Aside from being the Town Crier with a call to action, blogs in particular take advantage of listservs and social networking to virally spread the word. And there have been many successful actions that have occurred -- many are usually launched in response to:

* Negative or offensive act toward the community in the media or by an organization.

* A need to generate interest in a topic, event or person.

* The desire to get elected officials' attention on an issue.

An incredibly successful example of online activism that bubbled up nationally was Join the Impact's (JTI) completely spontaneous grassroots, online-driven effort to organize protests around the country in response to Proposition 8's passage in California, rolling back marriage equality. Over 500 Facebook groups were created. This led to 300 city international protests on November 15, 2008. People reported on the actions by posting photos in real time to their blogs and photo sites, and used Twitter to handle logistics and report on crowd size and action. This was something organized so quickly that no traditional LGBT organization could have mobilized anything of that magnitude.

While the JTI Prop 8 demonstrations were well-attended, subsequent events saw significant drop in participation outside of cities with large LGBT enclaves. Some speculate the reason for this may have to do with the fact that organizers were everyday people wanting to make a difference and statement about Prop 8, but didn't have field organizing experience to follow up with additional protests without a galvanizing event to motivate and sustain the level of participation. That's where the strength of traditional organizations comes into play.

It's why the hastily organized National Equality March, which will be held in Washington, D.C. on October 11 (with state events going on concurrently), sought endorsements from advocacy organizations, bloggers and grassroots activists to help build name recognition, enthusiasm -- and resources. Connecting to a large slice of LGBTs surfing and connecting on the Net is now an essential piece of offline actions produced by traditional activists. You cannot have a successful event without it -- and you have to have Net-savvy folks on board to make it happen.