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 time, it would have been hard to envision a landscape where television shows such as Glee could positively portray transgender and gay high school students on primetime TV, or that actors such as Neil Patrick Harris could be proudly out and portray a heterosexual romantic lead on a top-rated broadcast sitcom.
For the LGBT movement to have a significant impact on "moving the needle" in support of LGBT rights, however, the ability to communicate beyond our limited geographic circles became imperative. Viewing LGBT celebrities on television or in the movies was not enough. It still felt like a remote issue and not personal enough. The LGBT civil rights movement needed a method to amplify its message but keep it personal at the same time. If LGBT communities were to move from the recesses to the center stage and gain rights in a strategic and organized manner, it had to be personal and global at the same time.
Thus came about the confluence of the LGBT community's civil rights movement with nascent and emerging technologies. The Internet and the subsequent rise of social media have allowed LGBT people to bridge disparate geographies in ways that no previous technologies permitted. The Internet has also permitted LGBT people to safely and discreetly find partners and learn that they are not alone, regardless of where they live, from the comfort and security of their own home. The rise of social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and the continuous connectivity via smartphones have only accelerated the decrease in the isolation that has long been a part of the LGBT experience. One need only look at the sea of red equal signs that appeared on Facebook in support of marriage equality to see the potential impact of sharing ideas across new social media.
It is for these reasons and others that I co-founded the LGBT Technology Partnership. As technology has become integrated into our daily lives, there are real ways in which LGBT communities utilize technology differently, from online and app dating to activism. The LGBT Technology Partnership was founded to advance technology and its application and adoption in all communities and LGBT nonprofit organizations across the U.S., and to engage technology companies and public policy leaders in addressing the specific technological issues of concern to LGBT communities, including issues like confidentiality, cyberbullying, access to content without censorship, security and electronic health care, to name a few.
In June we will hear the Supreme Court's decisions about the government's role in laying out a political and legal framework for same-sex couples to find partners, fall in love, marry and have our relationships recognized by our government. But in rallying and organizing, this time, regardless of the outcome, there will not be any phone trees or flyers being printed and stapled to telephone poles to determine our community's next move. As the LGBT civil rights movement continues to play out across the country, the unsung heroes most assuredly will be the technological platforms like broadband, wi-fi, smartphones, tablets and social media that have enabled its acceleration.