Just Happens to be LGBT: How social media saved SA’s equality campaign 

click to enlarge Members of CAUSA, an alliance of LGBT groups, outside of City Hall - MARY TUMA
  • Mary Tuma
  • Members of CAUSA, an alliance of LGBT groups, outside of City Hall

In early 2012, while I was serving on the local steering committee of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), I visited Washington, D.C. for the organization’s annual Equality Summit. Being an election year, one of the speakers was David Plouffe, a senior advisor to President Obama.

Although Plouffe’s speech was largely campaign rhetoric for the President’s re-election bid, he said something about the LGBT equality movement I will never forget: it has happened FAST. Faster, he said, than almost any other social cause in recent memory. Faster than any political strategist could have ever expected.

Of course, we all know how quickly things have been changing. But the part of Plouffe’s comments that I’ll always remember was a simple comparison he made: the LGBT movement is best looked at in relation to the spread of social media and mobile communications.

I’m not sure if Plouffe’s comment that day was an original thought or something he read somewhere, but the fact always intrigued me. Just as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Rights movement of the ’70s was aided by the television revolution, LGBT rights have expanded as people have gotten more digitally connected. That seems more like correlation than mere coincidence.

If you’re a member of the LGBT community in San Antonio, it’s easy to see the influence of social media on the current discussion about the city’s non-discrimination ordinances (NDO) to include gender identity, sexual orientation and veteran status. I—and many, many others—tried to get the word out for months about these changes, often with mixed success.

Social media helped. But quite honestly, it was hard to push people in the LGBT community to contact their council members. People needed a rallying point or two to give them something to work toward. They needed something to spark their social media fingertips. Then, along came the one-two punch on August 14 and 15–Eric Alva was publicly booed and Elisa Chan was publicly exposed.

Alva, a veteran who lost his leg in the Iraq war, was booed in City Council chambers for declaring that without the NDO he could lose his job or be thrown out of an establishment just for being gay. Chan, City Council’s District 9 representative, was recorded by a staffer (using a mobile device, I might add) during a private political strategy meeting in which she and others decried gay “lifestyles” in a multitude of ways, including the use of the word “disgusting.” The recording was documented in an article by Brian Chasnoff in the Express-News.

By now, both events are well-known around the city, in particular among LGBT San Antonians. From a personal perspective, I would estimate that about 800 of my own Facebook friends identify as LGBT, and the vast majority of them (not to mention several allies) posted and re-posted about the two events. Soon, national media outlets picked up both stories, and my friends continued to post comments from sources as varied as Buzzfeed, the LGBT blog Towleroad and, of course, Facebook friend extraordinaire, Star Trek’s original Sulu, aka George Takei.

Chan’s comments, in particular, became a flashpoint. If people needed a reason to act, suddenly that reason became clear as day. Her comments came up frequently—especially among straight friends and family, who asked if I could believe what she said.

The social media events of Alva’s and Chan’s stories going national were—and are—significant in this road toward LGBT equality. At our core, Americans loathe the idea of discrimination. We have collectively re-discovered that loathing time and again. It’s a cleansing act each time we do it, as once observed by Martin Luther King Jr. in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” where he cites non-violent direct action as a path towards equality:

We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

I re-read Dr. King’s letter at least three times a year. It reminds me of the need to constantly re-expose those boils of inequality. In keeping with that idea, I implore people to understand what Elisa Chan clearly does not: that equality has to include everyone for the concept to work.

The people with by far the toughest challenges for equal treatment are our transgender neighbors across the city. An assurance to be free from discrimination is not a lot for a neighbor to ask. And there is nothing more neighborly that we as gay, lesbian or straight citizens can do than to expect our council members to ensure “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” are both protected classes in our city code.

Each month, we feature a reader’s personal “I am” statement that encompasses who they are. Send me your own “I am” statement in 100 words or less, and we’ll publish one statement each month. Contact us at currentlyrichard@gmail.com.

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Bree Kristensen
I am the same as you, but I am different. I was born with what some might consider an abnormality—visible not to the naked eye, but to the compassionate heart. I am transgender. It has caused me to struggle greatly, but also to learn and grow. I do not look back on it with regret, for it has made me the person I am today. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a fiancée, a computer scientist, a country girl. I am the same as you, but I am different, and I just happen to be LGBT.

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