"Gayby Boom" Activism Takes Movement Online

by Christian Michael Grantham

Today's use of the Internet by LGBT students is putting our civil rights movement in fast-forward. Over the past few years, thousands of students have gathered in regional LGBT student leadership conferences, tens of thousands joined in mourning the death of fellow student Mathew Shepard and literally hundreds of thousands have been mobilized to volunteer and vote. All of this has happened with virtually zero money spent on postage, mailings or phone calls.

LGBT Student activist's online communication is far more developed than any other segment of our nation's movement. Thanks to universities provision of free email accounts to all students in the early 1990s, 100% of our movement's next generation has already graduated into a "second nature" use of this powerful communications tool. With the help of online information from resources like Fenceberry and Rex Wockner, our movement is plugged in to what is happening right now.

The Internet has also created a generational tsunami of activists poised to crest within our movement with the coming new century. They are quick to respond on message and en masse. The values, energy and idealism of the next generation of LGBT activists are the makings of an awesome cultural and political renaissance. On campuses right now, online communications are helping LGBT student activists to build on the successes of tireless individuals and groups who have experienced tremendous personal losses to AIDS in the 1980s and the gains of their undying determination in the 1990s.

The level of LGBT student organization and leadership, due to online communications, is best characterized by comparing the public's reaction to last year's murder of Mathew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, with this year's murder of Billy Gaither, a gay and fairly average middle-aged citizen in rural Alabama.

Within a couple of days of Shepard's murder, campus vigils across the country channeled hundreds of local communities into national mourning and action on the issue of hate crimes. LGBT students went online to communicate the personal relevance of hate and discrimination against their own and moved campus communities whose online communications and dedicated local activism had long since prepared them for calls to real action.

Billy Gaither's murder was no less significant or gruesome than Shepard's nor the horrible deaths of 12 gay Texans in 1994 alone. However, in contrast, those who relate to Gaither's life circumstances most often don't connect with a mobilized awareness and local response to what's happening because of underdeveloped lines of local communication. They also don't place the same value on community connection in a virtual online medium they have yet to personalize as much as students have had the opportunity to. Not having a highly developed communications network leaves a majority of our nation's movement left out of targeted educational information or a sense of connection to calls for mobilized action.

While most people slowly move toward the precision and quickness of online communications, the next generation of LGBT activists is helping the power of a mobilized consciousness emerge within the front lines of our movement. The ability of students to manage information and mobilize action online has met, if not surpassed, our national movement's ability to do the same on the grassroots level. Recognizing the difference of organization between these two generations within our movement is very important in making them both work together.

Preparing our movement for the inevitable increase of Internet use can significantly contribute to the integrity of national LGBT leadership. Modeling and especially articulating the kind of leadership that values ideas over politics is an easy first step in communicating with the kind of leadership that students pledge to bring into our movement. Their leadership is often defined by an ability to not only relay important information and messaging to highly developed online distribution networks, but more importantly their ability to translate the virtual information into tangible action. Both abilities require an innate navigational sense to which most students have already adapted and a high value on ideas mostly absent of the kind of politics our movement finds itself so often internally confronting.

The current methods of mobilizing Americans around our movement's value of equality and fairness brought about significant changes over the past 30 years. However, the process of drafting campaign messages, direct mail production, volunteer energy, material resources, postage and fundraising necessary to move this gigantic wheel are costly. The process also opens up the essential message to become compromised by politics.

Comparatively, the online geography of our movement's emerging generation, with respect to time, resources and even politics, resides in a space that LGBT students have grown up navigating. This space transcends the absence of a locally organized community and empowers individuals to stand up as strong local voices articulating the essential message of our national movement. For students, this sense of online community is an active and real force of social change led simply by a strong focus on ideas.

The appreciation and level of Internet use for the next generation of our movement came from growing up with it. The Internet initially provided safety and security to an estimated hundreds of thousands of teens in the 1990s. This has literally transformed the process of "coming out" from a step taken out of a closet to a natural step into one's sexuality. The resulting value placed on the virtual medium that helped this occur engages in students a hopeful appreciation and use of online information and genuine calls for action.

With a sophisticated communications network in place and active, the future of our movement is now here and open to so many possibilities. The eventual sharing and transition of responsibilities between generations of activists presents several challenges that will ultimately test our movement's resolve to do for others in our work what we have done politically for ourselves and for our time.

As long as we have acted in our politics as though history were taking a personal look at everything we did and valued, our new era to come will echo the best of what we've all made together.


Christian Michael Grantham is a consultant living in Washington, DC and is published in community papers across the country. Reprint by permission from author (grantham71@aol.com). Visit http://www.kwiksand.com/grantham for more information.

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