Pantsuit Nation as a Model for Queer Storytelling

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Louis “Studs” Terkel was an American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster best remembered for popularizing the oral histories of “ordinary” Americans. He interviewed thousands of individuals about their firsthand experiences of living in a metropolis, participating in World War II, living through the Great Depression, their work life and how they felt about it, the American Dream, race in America, and death and dying. Collectively, his work represents a “rich history of the ideas and perspectives of both common and influential people living in the second half of the 20th century” (per the Library of Congress). Terkel recognized that the words of a hotel porter were just as important if not more so than those of a business tycoon and committed his life to tapping into the vivid, deeply personal experiences of living, “everyday” witnesses, documenting their struggles, hopes, and dreams for posterity.

Photo: Getty Images/Chicago History Museum

Photo: Getty Images/Chicago History Museum

Terkel, a progressive political activist, would likely have loved the by-invitation only Facebook group Pantsuit Nation (PSN). PSN, which currently has just shy of 4 million members, was initially created as a space to celebrate the first woman US President, but since Hillary Clinton’s upset in November, it has evolved into a space for women—and some men—to tell their stories. And what stories they are: powerful, short vignettes about their experiences of loss, dismay, discrimination, hurt, anguish, fear, empowerment, support, commitment, and optimism in post-election America. Posters come from all walks of life: all religions, all genders, all races, all sexual orientations, all ages, and all socioeconomic groups. Their stories, though written, read almost like oral retellings in their colloquial and engaging style.

Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press

Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press

Done informally and with little moderation, PSN is documenting life in America in 2016 as experienced by minorities. Members’ anecdotes are heart wrenchingly, emotionally evocative: a Muslim woman jeered at in a grocery store for her veil, a woman sexually assaulted in a bar by a friend, a person of color enduring racist taunts at a gas station. Although the group “preaches to the choir” in the sense that members are predisposed to champion minorities and therefore need no convincing that pockets of unjustified bigotry and hatred throughout the U.S. should be resisted and the minorities who live in them supported, these stories would find resonance if told to an audience outside PSN as well. For one thing, they would alert Americans who didn’t realize how poorly minorities are still being treated throughout the country to America’s seedily discriminatory underbelly. Terkel once said: “People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being.” More than just entertainment, personal anecdotes also allow us to connect to other people on an emotional level. Facts and figures can be sterile and emotionless. It’s is one thing, for example, to hear the statistic that 41% of transgender people try to commit suicide (compared to the national average 4.6%), another thing to hear the grief in a family member’s words describing the loss of a loved one.

As a form of activism, PSN may be an effective model for the LGBT community to copy; it demonstrates that ordinary storytelling may be an effective form of social influence when paired with efforts to push legislation. Terkel once observed: “More and more we are into communications; and less and less into communication.” In this case, the LGBT community may be able to parlay American society’s retreat into the Internet—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the like—to its benefit by combining both communications and communication: “slacktivism”—which under other circumstances connotes a failure to take physical action in favor of something costless like signing an online petition—in this instance works in the queer community’s favor; stories can be liked and shared on Facebook, enabling them to snowball and move around the world faster and more effectively than any time in the past.

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty images

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty images

As we mentioned in a previous article, 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. We also noted that according to GLAAD’s 2016 “Accelerating Acceptance” report, 43% of self-identified heterosexual allies believe that queer Americans now have equal rights. The implication is clear: we need to do better at showing heterosexuals that discrimination remains a problem and that LGBT rights are not yet equal, and Facebook is a way to do it. So if you want to fight LGBT discrimination and advance gay rights, consider posting your story of what it means to be LGBT and what you’ve experienced in as many online places as you can, but especially Facebook. We need our stories to be heard, and for people to listen. Every story has the potential to change the mind of its reader or listener. According to a Gallup poll, as of this May 28% of Americans believed that same-sex relations between consenting adults should be illegal. That’s right, a full quarter of the US population still wants to criminalize homosexuality. It’s time to change that statistic.

Photo: Craig Ferguson,/Getty Images

Photo: Craig Ferguson,/Getty Images

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