How to be an LGBT ally in the age of slacktivism

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The following article is intended to generate conversation about how to encourage heterosexual allies to remain engaged post Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  It is not intended to denigrate or deny the contributions of allies, who have historically played and continue to play a key role in advancing LGBT rights. Any form of support from heterosexual allies is valued and appreciated. 

When the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2015, 26 million of Facebook users used the rainbow flag filter on their profile picture. “We did it!” was the jubilant spirit of the times. But what, other than passively supporting the right of minorities to have treatment equal to the majority, did the average heterosexual American citizen, even one who self-identified as an ally, do to create that outcome? How many lobbied their Congressman, participated in a march, or started a safe space program at work? Where are the protests and sit-ins of the 1960s? The United States likes to perceive itself as having a strong social activist culture, but nowadays most activism is armchair or Facebook activism—or “slacktivism,” as it’s called in academia. Hit “like” if you support the fair treatment of minorities! 

It’s not just the LGBT rights movement. Many collective action issues are increasingly moving online. Supporters of Cecil the Lion, the creators of the Kony 2012 documentary, and even the participants in the Starbucks red cup controversy all used social media (and YouTube) to rally support. At present, there is insufficient data to make a definitive assessment of whether slacktivism does or does not have any effect on social movements, but there is concern among some activists that slacktivism enables individuals to take credit for supporting a cause without actually having to exert real resources…and that the results of such costless activism are correspondingly flimsy. One of the hallmarks of traditional activism is that it entails a risk. Protesters could lose their jobs, be beaten, or be socially ostracized. The social cost of slacktivism, on the other hand, is almost nil. Does that make slacktivism less potent, or is this a new evolution in how individuals collectivize?

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Examples are contradictory. In 2009, Twitter users turned their profiles green, joined Facebook groups, and changed their location setting to Tehran in support of Iranian protesters to no real effect. A study from 2014 suggested that public, token displays of support for a cause such as signing a petition or joining a Facebook group often do not lead to meaningful support for the cause because it is done out of a desire to present a positive image to others. Then again, in March 2013, Facebook data scientists found that users were more likely to adopt the Human Rights Campaign’s pink equality sign if several of their friends did, suggesting that social influence can be a factor leading more people to be supportive of social causes.

The internet, for now, seems to be a double-edged sword: when straight allies promote LGBT campaigns, they influence their friends to follow through social bandwagoning, but at the same time, this online support may be limited to token gestures with an indeterminate effect on US views of the cause overall.

PFLAG National Straight For Equality AwardsPhoto by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for PFLAG

The activism of allies offline, meanwhile, may be declining. Paradoxically, cultural phenomena like Obergefell v. Hodges, Glee, and RuPaul’s Drag Race may be hurting the queer community by creating what GLAAD calls “a culture of complacency” among straight allies. According to GLAAD’s 2016 “Accelerating Acceptance” report, 43% of self-identified heterosexual allies believe that queer Americans now have equal rights. GLAAD summarized the dangers of this complacency by saying, “The non-LGBT public is under the false and potentially dangerous impression that the work for LGBT equality is done.”

The future of activism is changing because of technology. Will many allies, mostly the Millenial generation, eventually replace attending protests with “liking” things on Facebook instead? And if so, is that necessarily the worst thing that could happen, or will social activism through Facebook increase the number of peripheral LGBT allies? Whatever the case, slacktivism can never fully replace the need for allies to take proactive steps in the real world. GLAAD’s official list of 10 ways to be an ally suggests vague steps such as “Be a listener. Be open minded. Be willing to talk.” To encourage our allies to not be drawn into complacency, perhaps we should instead suggest concrete, action-oriented steps, such as:

  1. If you live in a state that allows discrimination in hiring or housing on the basis of sexual orientation, or that bans gay adoption, write your state senator to express opposition.
  2. Write an opinion editorial in your local newspaper in support of LGBT issues or march in a Pride Parade with your church, friends, etc. 
  3. Create a workshop on the benefits of diversity and inclusion for your company that discusses how to be sensitive to LGBT issues.
  4. Mentor at-risk GLBT youth or volunteer at a GLBT youth center.
  5. Read this article.

As queer women, we can help our allies remain proactive by identifying opportunities for them to get involved. We can help define the future of ally activism by finding the spaces where more ally support is needed. Hit “like” for our heterosexual allies!

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