Leveraging Love and Tech to Organize on Valentine's Day: Online Tools for Progressive Clergy to Advocate for LGBT Community

Historically both clergy and faith communities have been powerful forces of change, rallying movements for social justice in America. Perhaps no other single community has caused a larger divide in collective clergy-driven support than that of the LGBT community fighting for marriage equality (this also covers family equality for gay, lesbian, transgender persons, bisexuals, queer and questioning youth). The LGBT community has their own voice and the support of many other groups, but it is the support of progressive clergy and congregations that can effectively and more rapidly wear down the fear and anxiety that impede social change.

There is a great divide between those clergy who are "cafeteria progressives," and do not favor or publicly support marriage equality, while the truly progressive clergy who do support marriage equality aren't always able to translate their support into action. It's out of this conflict that an interesting and innovative web-based platform and resources have been created in an effort to shape a cultural movement, whose core organizing tenant is founded on the principal of love. Aptly named, for a discussion so close to Valentine's Day, this group is called Standing on the Side of Love, and they are bold advocates of social justice armed with online tools, audacious goals, e-mail marketing savvy, and an appetite for change.

Founded by the Unitarian Universalist Association, Standing on the Side of Love launched September 2009, mobilizing for the wildly successful October National Equality March on Washington. However, Standing on the Side of Love isn't a traditional LGBT campaign or organization, but rather position themselves as an organizer's "toolkit." The toolkit empowers organizers for integrating justice (sexual and otherwise) into broader justice movements that address racism, poverty, immigration and other concerns. If they are successful in that endeavor, chances are that Standing on the Side of Love participants and leaders can effectively challenge both the idea and practice that sexuality be kept separate from other social justice concerns.

Below is the transcript of my interview with Adam Gerhardestein, campaign manager of Standing on the Side of Love.

Winning marriage equality in Washington, D.C., was a remarkable success credited to a huge coalition effort. How did Standing on the Side of Love contribute to that effort? Can you share any lessons learned on working with like-minded, but dramatically different organizations?

I'd like to think that Standing on the Side of Love contributed greatly to that effort. What made DC a real success was the broad religious support behind marriage equality. [Bill Author] Council member David Catania said at the signing that the support of the clergy was

SSL played a major part in building that voice and making it heard throughout the District. One of our lead organizers and national spokespeople, Rev. Rob Hardies put together a coalition of leaders from different faith backgrounds, social backgrounds and races called the DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality; he really infused the core messages of Standing on the Side of Love into that movement. The idea that love is a central tenet most religions and that we have a duty to welcome and protect marginalized groups in our society was such an important piece in that public debate.

The religious voice we were able to raise through the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign ended up playing such a critical role that Mayor Fenty chose Rev. Hardies' church, All Souls, Unitarian as the location for the bill signing. It was the ultimate recognition of our efforts and a proud moment for everyone here.

If there is one takeaway from that experience which can translate to all grassroots movements, it is that diversity is strength. Working with diverse groups towards a common goal adds depth and breadth to the argument you are making. It adds legitimacy to your movement and encourages your supporters. Marriage equality in DC was successful because we had such a diverse group of people behind it. We represented a broad section of the District's population, and the city council had to acknowledge our support.

You've said that you see "love" as a verb. Can you explain more what that means and how it can be used both in online advocacy efforts and in on-the-ground actions?

Love isn't a state of being, or something that happens to you, it is demonstrated in your actions. We encourage people to conceive of and spread an understanding of love that goes beyond individual romance to embrace a community. In the case of Standing on the Side of Love, we stand up for the dignity of all communities of people who may be victims of violence, oppression or exclusion based on their identity.

Through online and offline action, we ask our supporters to show that love. It's a positive construction, rather than "fighting" or resisting or reacting, it puts us in the driver's seat. Offline action is relevant, personal, face to face and situated in very real and local context. It's about building relationships. Online tools allow us to represent and aggregate those actions, articulating a movement across the country.

This is what we're trying to do with Standing on the Side of Love Day. Standing on the Side of Love Day is a nationwide call to action that lives out the heart of the campaign. It calls on all people to recognize that love is more than just a feeling towards spouse. It is a powerful force that allows us to come together and build vibrant and welcoming communities. Utilizing our online toolkit, local communities are taking action on issues that matter locally with tactics that make sense locally. So far, we have over 100 events registered nationwide and we are excited to see how local communities can run with this campaign on a grassroots level.

What techniques (lessons learned) can Standing on the Side of Love share with the larger community of many different secular and non-secular voices on how to bridge the disconnected of justice, public policy, and popular debates?

This campaign is all about partnership. We want people to adapt our work to their communities, and take action in a manner which is meaningful for them. I think that is one of the most important lessons of the campaign. Real momentum has to come from the ground up. This wouldn't have worked if we had simply said to our activists, "hold a rally for x and say y". We have to relate our message to their experience. That is why we've been successful. We don't dictate the terms of our activists' work, we give them the tools and the support structure to engage on the ground, and we provide an umbrella of support so that we can build upon each other's work. For any movement to be effective, it has to respect local communities. To do that you can't tell them what they care about, you have to ask.

Change is not often swift, in fact it can be painfully slow and characterized by smaller wins that are often compromised and hard to celebrate. Do you have advice or insight on how to break down a movement in a way where participants can feel movement towards success (e.g. local efforts v. national ones)?

That is a problem that every long-term campaign faces. There is no one answer to this, but we try to keep people engaged by keeping our communications intimate. We like to use local stories to demonstrate our progress and our setbacks. When activists share their personal experiences, it helps to remind supporters of our larger goals and the importance of reaching them.

No matter what, we can always use our experiences to move forward. Do setbacks galvanize you to work harder? Definitely. In DC there were a number of setbacks over the years which galvanized the community for a larger push which was ultimately successful. As long as you have open lines of communications to your supporters, you can take the passion which they already have and use it to build momentum.

Standing On the Side of Love leverages both Twitter and Facebook a lot, in fact, you've called it "Fweeping," how has this helped your efforts at organizing, and how do you see those social networking micro-communities executing on actionable goals (or are they mostly distributed marketers) and then later on in a future in which marriage equality has been reached?

Twitter and Facebook have allowed us to reach new audiences, and more fully engage people within our congregational network. We have a very active base online. If that's where people spend time then that is where we should be. And these micro-communities are excellent at taking action, spreading our campaign message, and helping to shift culture. Fweeping is an essential part of galvanizing and mobilizing our base, and it is an absolutely necessary component to building our movement and reaching out to new supporters.

These tools are also somewhat revolutionary because they allow our followers across America to experience our work on the front lines of these issues. One of the most useful applications we've found for twitter is live tweeting: During the signing of the DC marriage bill, SSL staff was providing live coverage to our supporters, allowing people around the country to take part in that victory. We also live tweeted the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda from Capitol Hill. These tools help inspire our base and move them to action.

The role of Facebook and Twitter within our organization is constantly evolving, but it is obvious that these tools will be closely linked with our organizing no matter what issues we address.

Email is a less sexy, not often reported on tool, can you share a little how email is leveraged by Standing on the Side of Love, and how important it is to your efforts? (fundraising, spreading the word, mobilizing, etc.)

Email is actually very central to our campaign. We've put a lot of work into building our list and as a result have over 25,000 contacts. When we send out emails it drives people to our website. When we notify people of Facebook changes or website changes all of our traffic spikes.

It's true, email doesn't have the glitter of new online social media tools, but it remains the most important organizing tool we have. For us it's a very personal medium. We believe the campaign has to be told as a narrative; we can't do that with tweets or on Facebook. Email allows us to illustrate to our supporters what it has meant to stand on the side of love and then call them to find their own ways to spread that message in their communities.

We send emails from faith leaders, campaign staff, and people affected by discrimination. These emails aren't rhetoric heavy, they are intimate and they animate broader issues through personal experiences. They have been a valuable resource to educate and engage our community, driving online and offline action.

While long-term trends clearly favor equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, what specific efforts can organizers take to shift public sentiment and public policy in a progressive direction? Are clergy-organizers positioned to lead these efforts more so than others?

There is this myth in our public discourse which, I think, mischaracterizes our society's attitudes towards marriage equality and the glbt community in general. We're often told that our society does not support equal rights for glbt Americans, but that simply is not true. The real problem is that opponents of equal rights have been more vocal in their opposition. What we're doing is important because the full spectrum of religious values has not been accurately represented. This gives the impression that religion is not tolerant, which is false. Moving forward, it is important for supporters to raise their voices against these false stereotypes. In addition to the religious community, minority communities have been falsely stereotyped as unsupportive of equal rights. We need groups to combat those lies in order to demonstrate the true support that exists for equality. It's all about making our voices heard.

Standing on the Side of Love is Reimagining Valentine's Day in communities across America. See how people in your community are standing against oppression, exclusion and violence. Visit www.standingonthesideoflove.org/reimagining-valentines-day/ to take part in an event near you.

Adam Gerhardstein is the Campaign Manager of the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign, a public advocacy campaign sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association that harnesses love's power to stop oppression. He was previously the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association's Washington Office for Advocacy. In 2001 he founded Ugali, an organization that supports communities and students in Western Kenya. He graduated from Xavier University in 2005.

Standing on the Side of Love's
website design, presence, and social strategy are made possible by technology partners: Beka Economopoulos VP of Fission Strategy and original design by Kien Tseng.