Changing the Political Landscape: How the Internet Saved the LGBT Movement

by: Calhoun Kersten

I was born and raised Catholic — but not in the religious sense. There were no crosses or rosaries adorning my childhood bedroom, and we were more the traditional “What’s that, it’s controversial? That means we don’t talk about it” kind of Catholics. Issues such as the weather and the work day were the sorts of topics that we stuck to at our Sunday night family dinners.

However, that all changed when I was still relatively young, when I made the controversial decision to come out to my parents. Let’s be clear, it wasn’t controversial to me; I knew what I felt I had to do. But in small-town, upper-middle class, predominantly white suburbia? According to my parents, I might as well have torn up their country club membership right then and there and painted our house with a giant rainbow flag on it. They’ve come around since then, but in the beginning, it was not a conversation they wanted to have.

What does that have to do with the progression of the LGBT rights movement, you may ask? No, I’m not taking created for the leaps and bounds that have been made — and the more to come — since I came out a decade ago, but we cannot ignore that the world has become a very different place in the last decade, largely in part thanks to technology. While “your son is gay” may not have been a conversation that my parents wanted to have ten years ago, the viral success of YouTube sensations like the “It Gets Better” campaign changed the dialogue of what it means to be gay — a conversation no longer spoken in hushed tones in the privacy of one’s own metaphorical closet. It has become a national talking point. While I was forced to bring the topic to my folks, modern parents are well aware of the trials and tribulations of gay youth.

Unfortunately, it has taken the suicides of gay youth to start this conversation. Through tragedy, the LGBT community was able to create a sense of purpose, and countless people took to the internet after these events to dialogue about what could possibly drive young people with such bright futures to such disturbing lows. It seems almost impossible to answer that question, but through the technological advancements of the digital age, we have created a dialogue as well as a virtual community.

The importance of digital presence should not be underestimated. In an increasingly globalized world, the divides that geography creates are diminished. What people may not be able to find within their physical space, whether it be small-town Ohio or the vast concrete jungle of urban New York, they are able to create within a safe, digital space. While this may seem counterintuitive to the typical parental fear of the internet when it first arrived, people have learned to use the internet “properly.” [1] Just as important as creating and maintaining a digital community, as the gay rights movement has done, is using it towards a common goal.

I have often argued whether or not “community” is the right word for a group such as those who identify as LGBT. Community has always seemed, to me at least, to imply some sort of active identification, as opposed to having been born into a community. Whether you agree with this or not, there is no denying that the internet has created a sense of urgency in the struggle for LGBT rights, with allies from every part of the spectrum. The method of giving voice to this fight for equality is as diverse as the allies themselves.

However, there are two facets that are equally important to consider.

On the one hand, there is the explicitly political content that the internet has to offer. The most immediate instance that comes to mind is the testimony of Maureen Walsh. Since first airing on C-SPAN, the video has gone viral. For those unfamiliar, the clip is of a Republican representative as she gives an impassioned speech about the necessity for equal rights for all Americans. Even though her speech first aired on C-SPAN, the explicitly political content was made accessible through the internet. Rather than force viewers to watch 24 hours of C-SPAN in hopes of an empowering message, it was cut down and presented in a manner more suited for our ADHD nation.  The internet makes this  message palatable in a way that its original medium could not.

However, although the internet is a tool for the masses, it also allows for subtlety and nuance in dealing with these issues. Countless websites, such as FunnyOrDie.com and YouTube, have taken to the web to create parodies and counterpoints to the rhetoric against gay marriage and equal rights. However, just as the internet allows for the expression of the pro-equal rights agenda, it allows the same for opponents of the movement. Nevertheless, the important element to this technological shift is that it creates visibility and a space in which to discuss these issues while still maintaining a certain level of anonymity.

The internet has been a tool for change since its inception, and as most American youth don’t even remember a time before the internet, they will grow up with YouTube and Tumblr as social norms as opposed to cutting edge technology. I can also hope that they will grow up to believe that loving someone, no matter their gender or gender representation, isn’t something to be scared of or disgusted by. With the number of changes to the LGBT rights movement, specifically the increasing visibility and the ever-expanding, globalized community, a number of factors deserve credit for these changes. Although we have the internet to thank, we must also champion the people who use this technology to question the heteronormative standards in place, to create a dialogue about equality.

Calhoun Kersten was born and raised in upper-middle class, predominantly white suburbia (aka. Wyoming, Ohio. After escaping the shackles of privilege, he made the monumental decision to move to Chicago and go to art school. After getting his undergrad degree in Film and Video at Columbia College, he found himself overeducated and unemployed, leading to the decision to pursue his Masters in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. He is currently finishing up his thesis on narrative elements and economic influence in long-running horror franchises, before moving to LA where he will probably be the most overqualified barback in the Los Angeles area.

[1] I include properly in quotation marks because there is no right or wrong way to use a tool like the internet, but properly implies a constructive use of technology.

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