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SDGLN exclusive: Media playing key role in messaging and mobilizing for equal rights globally

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth part in a series on “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality,” a consultation about finding ways to decriminalize homosexuality across the world and to bring equality and dignity to LGBT people. Editor in Chief Ken Williams was on the planning committee headed by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego and was a participant in the consultation, and he is sharing with SDGLN’s readers what he learned during the meetings.)

NEW YORK – The good news is that the media – whether mainstream or LGBT-oriented – is doing a good job of messaging and mobilizing for global gay rights.

The bad news is that the media is not doing enough because of a lack of content-sharing, revenue and communication.

In many parts of the world, especially in places where the media is tightly controlled by government, the messaging and mobilizing is being done via Social Media or the old-fashioned way, by email or word of mouth. LGBT activists in the 76 countries where it is illegal to be gay struggle to communicate with each other. Some resort to establishing email accounts in countries where it is safe to be gay.

“Pleading Our Cause: Media, Messaging and Mobilization” was the topic of the fourth session of the “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality” consultation last week at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, where almost 100 prominent secular and faith leaders gathered to brainstorm ways to achieving equality across the world.

Keynote speaker Dr. Timothy McCarthy of Harvard University

One of the most inspiring speakers during the two-day consultation was Dr. Timothy McCarthy, director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

A historian on social movements, McCarthy linked the fight for LGBT equality to other human rights struggles, including women’s suffrage, women’s liberation and the civil rights movement.

“I’m not just a scholar but also an activist,” McCarthy said. “We need to create our own dissent … We are at the beginning of a new struggle … a tipping point on raising LGBT issues … and a turning point where we need new direction.”

He said our progress also shows us how far we have to go to achieve acceptance and full equality.

“Stigmas against us are universal, even if it affects each of us in different ways,” McCarthy said.

He noted how the human-rights framing means different things around the world. Speaking of the U.S., he blasted the tendency of activists to fight for one task at a time, issue by issue, saying that it limits us by going piecemeal.

“We’re coming at it from a place of weakness, waiting on big, powerful people to do something for us,” he said. “We need to empower ourselves to imagine a bigger and broader movement” that demands equality now, not later.

“It is homophobia that is the problem, not homosexuality,” McCarthy said. “We must flip the script!”

McCarthy advocated for a media clearinghouse to tell our stories -- biographical, historical, communal and aspirational. Like other speakers, he urged telling our achievements as well as our struggles. “Tell the good stories,” he said. “Love … solidarity … start saying ‘Gay Is Good’ again … we are indeed God’s children and we are indeed good.”

Responding to some speakers who argued for the need of funding, McCarthy tacked the money issue, saying he “rejects the narrative that we don’t have money” and prompted the notion that we should divert more money toward the global effort toward decriminalization.

He shared what he did in his personal life to help, saying that when he legally married his boyfriend that they rejected wedding gifts in favor of cash to be donated to LGBT causes. He said the newlyweds raked in $47,000 for their favorite LGBT groups.

Coming from a university setting, McCarthy said American universities need to partner in this movement for global decriminalization with other universities around the world. He warned activists not to navel-gaze but to build allies.

Noting the success of the Arab Spring and the growing Occupy movement, McCarthy said time has come for a “Queer Spring.”

Panel discussion

Dr. Cindi Love, executive director of SoulForce in Abilene, Texas, moderated the media panel featuring Dr. Tim McCarthy; Susan K. Reed, director of strategy and innovation at Auburn Media in New York City; Andre Banks of All Out; Ross Murray, director of Religion, Faith & Values at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); and Ken Williams, Editor in Chief of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Susan Reed talked about “Using the American Prayer Hour as an Awareness Raising Tool, Both for Grassroots and Media” as a contrast to the National Prayer Breakfast, run by The Family, the secretive and powerful right-wing group that promotes homophobia and its brand of “Christianity.”

She warned that conservatives already control much of the media, such as Fox News; completely dominate talk radio; and hold a majority of think tanks and endowed chairs at universities.

Reed, who has worked in mainstream media, for People and Oprah’s magazine and been a literary agent, said that readers are moved by stories. “Frame your message into a story,” she said. “Make it personal! Make them care!”

She said that in TV, you have seven seconds to sell an audience on your story or lose viewers. “Don’t hem and haw,” Reed said. “If you don’t get to the heart of the story immediately, you will lose your audience.”

Andre Banks provided a background on his organization, All Out, and how this online organizer has quickly grown to have more than 600,000 followers who support the goal to “build a world where every person can live freely and be embraced for who they are.”

Banks noted that a majority of All Out followers are heterosexuals who support equality for all.

He touted All Out’s many successes in petitioning anti-gay groups and organizations that inadvertently support anti-gay organizations. He pointed to the Christian Values Network, which is anti-gay, and how All Out has been successful getting large companies from associating with the network.

Ross Murray, of GLAAD, said the message needs to be simplified to make it reachable to general audiences. He, too, encouraged the sharing of stories in all forms, such as letters to the editor, opinion pieces and profiles.

“To humanize is to destigmatize,” Murray said.

Williams touted the use of Social Media and online media to share LGBT stories to the biggest audience available.

“I come here today to urge you to embrace online media and Social Media as important ways to amplify your many voices,” he said. “We all have a message that needs to reach the widest possible audience, and you already have the tools available to you to share that information on a global scale. The Internet is available to anyone who has a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop or a computer in any corner of the world.”

Williams said it is important to personalize our stories.

“The secret to your success will be to put a human face on whatever issue that you embrace. I tell my reporters to humanize, humanize, humanize,” he said. “Don’t just bombard readers with faceless statistics that mean little. Make them care by humanizing the story.”

Williams said LGBT media is struggling to survive in a terrible economy and as a result sees a real need for collaboration and cooperation.

“From an editor’s perspective, there needs to be a collective sharing of stories by different groups via as many media sources as possible to reach the broadest audience as possible,” he said. “For the most part this will not come from mainstream media. I sense a urgent need for what I call the ‘Gay Associated Press,’ a commitment on the part of progressive and LGBT media sources to share these live-and-death stories and to get our message out.”

Post script

The consultation agreed to look into the ideas of establishing a “Gay AP” or a clearinghouse, and charged Tim McCarthy, Ross Murray, Val Kalende and Ken Williams to the task.