I was camping over spring break when I used my smartphone to log onto Facebook and post some photos. As I scrolled down through my feed, I noticed that a number of people had changed their profile photos to the now iconic Human Rights Campaign (HRC) logo.
Having been digitally disconnected for a few days, I asked my partner what it was, and he said that it was in support of the marriage equality case being heard in front of the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). As a social media and social movement scholar, I was intrigued by all of the permutations of the image, similar to other Internet memes of social movement moments, such as that of the UC Davis pepper spraying.
When I returned from my trip, I began to follow some critiques of this social media marriage equality SCOTUS campaign, including a blog post, Six things that happened while y’all were pre-occupied with gay marriage,” by Mia McKenzie, who contends that this campaign is narrow, a privilege of the rich, and does not address class and race LGBT inequalities.
As social movement scholars (and/or activists), we are familiar with this common, and often justifiable, criticism of national policy campaigns, which are, by nature, focused on one issue. And by the time this issue makes it to Congress, or the Supreme Court, it is not only watered down but also shaped by organization(s) in power, often run by elites. At the same time, though, policy is never made in a vacuum, as various social movements have usually propelled an issue to the decision-making table.
And then, as if on cue, I saw a friend post another blog post on Facebook, “Why I almost defriended everyone who had an HRC logo as a profile photo this week,” which argues exactly that:
“Folks, the HRC is an organization run by rich white men. They have consistently chosen not to support trans rights. They have consistently silenced POC organizations and organizers. They have accepted donations from, and even honored, multi-billionaire corporations who have done more than their fair share to contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth and to systematic racialized and gendered oppression in the US.”
The conversation on my friend’s Facebook post was rife with debate about the issue and the HRC.
What I haven’t seen, though, in these discussions is how similar this critique of the logo flash activism is to past censures. Some Marxist organizations and socialist governments used to respond to members or citizens raising LGBT issues with claims of homosexuality as “bourgeois decadence.” Certainly, though, equating sexuality with decadence has been fodder for conservative capitalists as well.
These bloggers and activist critiques of marriage equality have legitimate frustrations about how more bureaucratic management-style organizations, perhaps like the HRC, refuse to align or fund campaigns in more marginalized communities. Or that marriage is an outdated institution built on the state dictating personal relationships. Or even the argument of the HRC’s exclusion of transgender symbols during a HRC photo op. However, these critics run the risk of sounding like they’re making yet another “bourgeoise decadence” claim of the issue, rather than of the group.
This issue is not isolated into a privilege of elite LGBT communities. Kate McFarland Bruce, a sociologist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has started a blog, “Sticker Shock,” about the financial costs she has endured for not being able to marry her partner legally.
“High profile cases often cite the huge costs, but there are still plenty of small costs that affect nearly all same-sex couples,” said Bruce, “The lesbian couple in the DOMA Supreme Court case had a $300,000 estate tax bill when one partner died. That’s a lot more money than most couples deal with, so I could see how it may seem that marriage is only relevant if you’re super rich. What my blog tries to do is show that there are plenty of small charges too. Marriage provides real benefits for parents and couples, and this isn’t restricted to rich people.”
It’s not just a white thing, either. According to data from UCLA’s William’s Institute, proportionally, more non-white same sex couples raise children than white couples do.
This issue has also taken on many more grassroots forms, beyond and much bigger than the HRC’s logo, policies or funders inside the Beltway or Wall Street. I have been struck by the dramatic changes in North Carolina politics around this issue since I used to live and organize in the state over a decade ago. During my fieldwork time in North Carolina, I witnessed the now very radical NC NAACP align with Equality NC, a statewide group fighting for LGBT rights, often joining forces on multiple occasions. An example of this intersectionality is in this (shaky iPhone) video clip I shot at a 2012 press conference for HKonJ, an annual statewide march for social and racial justice organized by the NAACP:
Nonetheless, the provocative blogs critiquing the HRC meme campaign were effective in raising critical issues by encouraging people to think beyond elite institutions. But I suspect most people who may have changed their Facebook profile picture were like me (though I admittedly never changed mine), and didn’t even know that this was an HRC logo or what the HRC is (perhaps they do now). Instead, I would hypothesize that people changed their profile picture as a form of solidarity for this universal issue of equality. It’s important sometimes to separate the social movement from the social movement organization.