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September 16, 2015 | Category: Blog | Author:

What we can — and can’t — learn from the special case of LGBT storytelling

In 1969, the Stonewall riots marked the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement in the U.S. Even as recently as 2005, 60% of Americans opposed marriage equality, but it is on the books today and the public opinion battle is all but won. Perhaps no issue has moved further faster in recent American history.

Part of the progress has been made thanks to excellent storytelling—the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the It Gets Better Project and poignant TV ads in favor of marriage equality.

A number of movements have rightfully asked if this success is replicable. The answer is, selectively.

The size and diversity of the LGBT community has accounted for much of this progress. LGBT people are in families in every community on earth, in all races and classes. That personal storytelling—people courageously coming out to their families and friends and churches and neighbors and co-workers—has probably made the single biggest difference.

Not all movements benefit from this kind of built-in access to the “audiences” whose minds they want to change. But the importance of connecting one-on-one with family and friends applies to other movements. (Storytelling to strangers may not be so productive: listen to a This American Life episode about canvassing against Prop. 8 and the debunked Green and LaCour research about personal stories to convert marriage-equality opponents.)

While the LGBT population is diverse, the marriage equality movement also benefitted from a segment of white men who—other things being equal—had more money, more social capital and a big personal stake in backing the issue. The same cannot be said of issues such as mass incarceration, which generally affect poorer and more disenfranchised communities. Such movements have their own strengths, but the personal investment of lots of middle- and upper-class people is not one of them.

With marriage equality—so long as you’re not repulsed by same-sex couples—the optics were good. Activists could fairly make the issue about love, commitment, family — as much as their opponents wanted to make it about sin. Advocates could (and did) often share the stories of attractive young people in love who wanted nothing more than to get married.

With issues like criminal justice, however, the optics are not so cheery. No matter what agenda activists want to advance, there are plenty of other people who will quickly turn the discussion to murderers and rapists deserving whatever they get in prison. The racism that drives mass incarceration is so deeply entrenched in U.S. society — and so tied up in the very founding of our nation in a way that homophobia is not — that it’s harder to make change.

But at least one thing remains constant throughout these various movements: the framing of an issue matters. Even gay men with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic — as stigmatized as they were — helped turn the conversation around. And activists working to end mass incarceration have also used the “family” frame to win victories.

Finally, the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the It Gets Better Project tell stories not just as a means of communications, but a means of community organizing. They succeed in part because they build the involvement of the people telling stories, not just the ones listening to them. Even in thorny and contested issues like racial justice, storytelling has an important role to play in building community leadership and power.

While other movements may not enjoy such stunning victories in seemingly so short a time, they can still learn something from the successes of LGBT people. Within limits. And we can hope that those successes expand freedom a bit for other people as well.

– Paul VanDeCarr, Working Narratives

FOR ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE, read a frank blog post on “LGBTQ Storytelling and Social Change,” and see the accompanying timeline.