How LGBT Organizations are Queering Dixie

By Laura Meadows

Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists opens with a straightforward question: “Why are some civic associations better than others at ‘getting’ – and keeping – people involved in activism?” Through a brilliantly conceived research design incorporating both observational and experimental data, Han methodically dismantles a series of false distinctions surrounding the choices contemporary activists organizations must make in their efforts to get people involved.

According to Han’s work, highly active civic associations do not choose between transactional mobilizing or transformational organizing strategies. Rather, the associations most successful at getting – and keeping – an active volunteer base blend the two models. Similarly, highly active associations do not rely solely on offline or online organizing. Han shows that they integrate the two models. Finally, Han argues that civic associations do not need to choose between expanding their membership bases or developing their existing members. Instead, successful organizations invest in members in order to develop their membership.

For instance, Han describes one highly-engaged organization’s decision to transition from organizing events to organizing organizers. In doing so, the group was able to leverage transformational organizing in order to develop a motivated cadre of activists for the necessary transactional mobilizing work. In short, the organization succeeded because it invested in members who subsequently grew its membership.

In her conclusion, Han asks how these findings might differ among other kinds of communities. Since Han focused on two relatively privileged activist populations, she leads us to think beyond these types of groups and to take up research questions outside the purview of How Organizations Develop Activists: What organizational strategies do groups use to build bases of support in politically-antagonistic settings? How do organizations tailor their messaging and organizational strategies to appeal to multiple and varied audiences? In the hopes of contributing to this conversation, I wanted to offer a finding from my own work that speaks directly to these questions.

For the past two years, I have been immersed in North Carolina’s LGBT movement. On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality in the state. On October 10, 2014, a federal judge ruled the amendment unconstitutional. In between and around these two dates, LGBT organizations built a vibrant, though specific, movement within the state. And they did so, similarly to Han’s highly-engaged organizational actors, through the development of a cadre of engaged and educated activists. North Carolina’s activists were challenged, however, due to the political, social, and cultural realities of the Old North State. As a lawyer representing the ACLU of North Carolina describes it, “North Carolina has the land mass of Connecticut and Mississippi. It also has the demographics and cultural understandings of Connecticut and Mississippi.”

In fact, as a region, the South is more rural, more religious, and more politically conservative than the rest of the United States. But, it is no more straight. The proportion of the South’s population that identifies as LGBT is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the country. However, as the more rural, religious, and conservative among us typically oppose the LGBT movement’s goals, Southern activists operate in a unique (and uniquely challenging) environment. Consequently, activists below the Mason-Dixon have developed targeted strategies to navigate this cultural terrain.

Specifically, recognizing that a singular, monolithic message such as “equality” would be ineffective amongst some cultural groups within the state, organizations targeted their messages, and the messengers that delivered them, to multiple publics, including those historically understood in both popular and scholarly minds to be antagonistic to the movement’s goals: farm country and churches. Simply put, they spoke to people where they were. And, in doing so, these organizations facilitated the organization and mobilization of what I call movement publics. Defined as discursive groupings of individuals and organizations that share a set of political, social, and/or cultural sensibilities in relation to the movement, the conceptualization of movement publics affords a lens through which to reflect on the diversity inherent in most movements and to consider the varied communicative strategies groups use to develop and recruit activists.

Through the conceptualization of movement publics, I argue that scholars need to consider the role of movement organizations in organizing and mobilizing diverse publics within a single social movement. Though political communication scholars have begun to examine the relationship between networked media, electoral campaigning, and social movements (Chadwick, 2007; Karpf, 2012; Kreiss, 2012), the ability of organizational actors to foster and develop movement identities, especially at the state level, has been understudied. Fraser’s (1990) conceptualization of “subaltern counterpublics” has effectively dismantled the notion of a singular public sphere and focused scholarly attention on the centrality of communication in forming and negotiating identities. However, the capacity for established movement organizations to foster discourse through the creation of offline and online spaces has not been specified.

As Han’s work clearly demonstrates, organizations play a central role in developing, training, and mobilizing activists. And, as I hope movement publics suggests, the role they play is, and will remain, a fruitful area of scholarly and practitioner study for the foreseeable future.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, How Organizations Develop Activists

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