Is gay marriage a gateway issue for political activism?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 29, 2013.

This week, as the Supreme Court took up two historic cases pertaining to same-sex marriage, it’s been an exciting time to be a college student. Huge numbers of young people on Facebook and Twitter continue to post pictures and status updates in support of marriage equality. Kids proudly walk around campus sporting red clothing in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that seeks to promote equal rights for gays, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals. The enthusiasm, from the quad to the blogosphere, is infectious and inspiring.

“As an LGBT student at Hopkins, I have been truly humbled by the way that my fellow students have rallied around this issue,” said Danielle Stern, who, like me, is a junior at Johns Hopkins University. “Hopkins isn’t a campus where students get excited easily.”

For so many of us, this feels like our civil rights moment. We grew up studying the struggles of our great-grandparents, our grandparents and our parents who fought for racial equality and social justice. But for me and for my peers, who grew up in an era marked by questionable wars in the Middle East, which in turn seemed to promote Islamophobia at home, politics seemed to represent a smarmy, dark, and at best, unengaging enterprise.

But suddenly there is an issue that people can get excited about. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 81 percent of 18-29 year olds support marriage equality. And that figure, though staggering to some, is not all that surprising. We’re the generation that grew up with Ellen Degeneres, Will and Grace, Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean. Gay role models today exist in almost every arena. Not supporting gay rights seems so at odds with everything we’ve grown up with. In the eyes of the youth, it’s bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

As I watch my friends from the left and right get their first taste of political activism in support of marriage equality, I wonder, could this type of involvement be here to stay?

In some respects, it is hard to imagine another type of issue that could garner such massive, broad-based support, yet political science tells us that political participation begets more political participation. Could gay marriage be the “gateway issue” for more kids to engage in the politics?

Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer found that often the most motivating factor for voters to turn out to the polls is simply that they have developed the habit to vote before. “Interest does not lead to participation,” Mr. Plutzer said. “Rather, participation promotes interest.” In other words, perhaps the most successful way to get Americans to vote throughout their lifetimes is to get them to vote for their first time.

To be sure, young people today aren’t citing gay marriage as their top issue at the voting booth. According to research conducted by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), only 3.8 percent of young voters named gay rights as their top issue in the 2012 presidential election. The vast majority of voters, both young and old, cited the economy and jobs as being most important to them.

But could simply participating in this historic moment along with the rest of the 81 percent in my generation be enough to ignite further participation down the road? We are given the opportunity to see political engagement at its best, and maybe the consequences will be lasting.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine thinks there is indeed a chance gay rights could be that gateway issue. “While there isn’t clear research that political organizing leads to more political organizing, the evidence from the voting world is pretty suggestive,” he said. “We know once you get people voting, it often leads to more voting.”

Will my generation move from gay rights to the environment or some other big issue? Time will tell. For now, I will enjoy this warm moment in history, as youth across the United States take part in the political process that will inevitably, and assuredly, give the gay community the rights they so very much deserve. And hopefully, this unique issue, which touched so many of us personally, will keep many more of us involved in the future.

Joseph Kony and the Internet

I, like probably many others reading this, logged onto Facebook last night and saw: “Amy Smith and 45 other friends shared a link ____” Linking us to the now incredibly viral Kony video made by an NGO, called Invisible Children. Invisible Children’s mission is defined as “A movement seeking to end the conflict in Uganda and stop the abduction of children for use as child soldiers.” Well, who can argue with that?

photo credit: border7.com

I had a lot of mixed reactions after watching the video, and then watching it spread across all of my social media websites. I felt sad and outraged for the children in the video. I felt excited by the sheer explosion of positive, social justice messages I was reading everywhere.  But, as much as I hate to rain on the parade, I also felt uncomfortable by this giant social media “support.”

Remember SOPA and PIPA? The viral internet campaign to stop “evil” legislation that would “change the internet forever” ? I’ll be the first to say I signed that petition. The fact that Wikipedia was engaging in a political fight seemed incredibly motivating and exciting. Well, it wasn’t until a few days after everything blew over, the facebook statuses changed, the tweets switched topics, that I began to read some critical articles about the SOPA protests. (Here’s a good one)

What about the Planned Parenthood episode? That was the viral internet campaign of the beginning of February. I proudly signed that petition too. I shared in my fellow liberal peers’ indignation and anger at the audacity of Susan G. Komen’s foundation decision. I felt very sure of myself and my convictions that something very bad  just happened. And when the Komen Foundation reversed their decision, I went to bed at night happy and satisfied. Justice had been served.

photo credit: dailybeast.com

Well, it wasn’t until a few days after everything blew over, the Facebook statuses changed, the tweets switched topics, that I began to read some critical articles about the Planned Parenthood media coverage. (It’s not that I changed my opinion necessarily, I just had to admit I never really took the time to play a real devil’s advocate. ) Here’s a good one.

What have I learned from all of this?
1. Social media activism is a real, and powerful thing. It’s incredibly exciting and infectious.
2. Because it’s so easy to get swept up in the hype, critical thinking is very often put on the back burner.
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Ok, now the Kony videos.
In a lot of ways I felt that same sort of excited, awestruck feeling I had with the SOPA and Planned Parenthood campaigns. Watching so many of my Facebook friends galvanized in support for a cause was great. It felt good to see Facebook and Twitter become tools for seemingly wonderful things.

But then I went and read more about Invisible Children, and found there’s actually a huge debate about all of this.

Visible Children, a Tumblr blog that has received a lot of attention, has questioned Invisible Children, asserting that its social media tactics aren’t the right way. “These problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow.”

In November, a Foreign Affairs article challenged the methods used by Invisible Children that were trying to raise awareness in the region. “Such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil,” the magazine wrote

And here is another interesting perspective I read.  This guy says, “One problem: [The videos] fall into the trap, the belief that the problem is ignorance and the answer is education. When we tell more people about Kony and the LRA, something WILL happen. It’s not true. Bono, Bob Geldolf, Angelina Jolie and thousands of others have brought more attention, more education, more money to issues – it doesn’t solve them. White ignorance is not the problem… It is built on the idea that Africa needs saving – that it is the White man’s burden to do so. More education does not change the systems and structures of oppression, those that need Africa to be the place of suffering and war and saving.” He writes that if anything, this only further fuels our Western impression that Africa is a place just full of HIV, war, and famine.

We shall see what ultimately happens. I think that on one level its absolutely awesome that the world is banding together to rid the world of this terrible, immoral person. But I am also really hoping that this is not just the Internet flavor of the week. I am hoping that this is more than some sexy social justice cause. And I am also hoping that people who care about this issue will continue to read about it, think critically, and challenge institutions and even organizations like Invisible Children when they need to be challenged. It’s something I’m going to try to work on myself.