How the LGBT community is using digital storytelling to amplify activism and chronicle its history

By Daniel Kitts - Published on April 7, 2015
two women touching hands
All Out protests the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, where it’s a crime for gay people to show their love in public

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Representatives from several American organizations discussed how they’re using digital media to advance the causes of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities (LGBT) at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas in March 2015, underlining the power of storytelling in the digital media age.

In Ontario, similar efforts are underway, as local organizations push to increase legal protection for LGBT groups and create a support base for LGBT persons.

“It’s illegal to be gay in 76 countries around the world,” said Wesley Adams of gay-rights organization All Out. “In ten of those, you can go to prison for life or be executed.”

According to Serena Worthington of Service and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the situation in the United States remains far from perfect. Even in Ontario, where the government is headed by an openly gay premier, activism is a priority for LGBT groups.

“You can get married in the state of Pennsylvania and enjoy state protections and federal protections,” Worthington noted in her SXSW presentation. “You can also be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. So when you get married, you go to work, you tell your boss, he can legally fire you.”

Adams said LGBT organizations are learning that in order for the public to care about their cause it’s not enough to make a convincing, logical argument alone.

“You have to be able to engage them on an emotional level. You have to be able to tell a story of what’s facing people in different parts of the world in a way that resonates with someone to actually get them to take action, to advocate for equality,” he said.

“Nobody gets excited over non-discrimination clauses.”

That insight led All Out to create an online video for its #LoveAlwaysWins campaign, which criticized the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for its response to Russia passing anti-gay laws in the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The video shows a fictional female figure skater who wins a gold medal but is unable to acknowledge her girlfriend in the crowd.

“That video seemed to resonate with a lot of people,” Adams said. “It got a couple of million views on YouTube. It was very widely shared, and I think it helped get people engaged around the issue."

After Sochi, the IOC eventually changed its non-discrimination clause to explicitly include sexual orientation. It's also changed its host city contract, so that if you’re a future Olympic host city you agree to honour the principles of non-discrimination.

Similar storytelling efforts are gaining purchase in Ontario. PFLAG Canada has a series of videos on its website telling “stories of real people on real journeys to Inspire Change.” The website also encourages visitors to “upload your own video and share to help connect people with the help and support they need.”

In addition to advocacy, digital storytelling also serves another purpose for LGBT groups: to create a base of knowledge and support for a group of individuals that historically felt isolated.

“If you’re Greek or if you’re Jewish or if you’re part of any other minority group, you typically have a network of support around you and you learn about your culture and your history as you grow up,” said Adams. “But when you’re gay, you’re simply born into a family and you don’t have gay uncles and sisters and parents and other people in the community. You’re just kind of thrown out there wherever you are. There’s not this generational handing down of information and cultural identity.”

Digital technology can play a role in changing that. StoryCorps, an oral history project that records everyday people’s stories, recently launched a campaign devoted specifically to capturing LGBT stories. The organization also created an app that enables people to record their story or the story of someone they know on a smartphone or tablet and have it archived digitally at the United States Library of Congress. Such technology allows gay and lesbian people, as well as people from other minority groups, to pass on their life experiences in ways they weren’t able to before.

Worthington, whose group has a program teaching LGBT senior citizens how to be digital storytellers, underlined the value of efforts to gather stories.

“Definitely hearing from older LGBT adults about what their experiences were like over the arc of their lifetimes was an incredible opportunity for us. To hear specific examples of folks who have been excluded from insurance, or fired from their job, or kicked out of their faith community or denied housing, I think that’s extremely important.”

While there are also efforts to chronicle LGBT stories in Canada, it’s more difficult for Canadian organizations to access funding and new technology.

“Keeping up [in Canada] with things like StoryCorps is really challenging,” said Rebecka Sheffield, a digital archivist with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA).  “I just downloaded the app and my immediate thought was, ‘How could I make this happen in Ontario, in Canada?’ And I don’t know yet.”

The main challenge is resources. In a country of Canada’s relatively small size, dollars aren't as plentiful as in the U.S. Also, the American market usually gets access to new technologies before its Canadian counterpart.

Still, using digital technology to preserve LGBT stories is happening. CLGA, the oldest such archive in Canada, is in the process of transferring many of its more than four decades worth of paper and analog records into digital. The long-term goal is to capture new stories and make them easily accessible to the public via digital technology.

In an interview with TVO.org, Sheffield said the potential to have these stories accessible online is clear.

“I grew up in a relatively small city in the Prairie provinces and I can’t imagine being able to log on to YouTube and read and read and read and see and see and see all of these other stories from people across the country or the world or maybe even someone down the street that I’ve never met before. I think it’s incredibly powerful.”

At the same time, she stressed the groups collecting LGBT stories “have to make sure we don’t just archive stories that make us look good and feel good, that only show particular expressions and categories of sexuality.

“From an archivist perspective, I worry that the privileging of pride over shame or the privileging of one story over another really discounts some of those blurry, fuzzy, awful parts of our lives that everyone goes through as well.”

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