“You think you can change America through film?” – Charlie Rose
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s not even in my job description. Storytelling. Get the story right. Do what you can with the story. Try not to cheat the story. Whatever happens after that is in the purview of other people. I felt that way as a reporter; I feel that way doing this. But every now and then you get to be a part of an argument, and that feels good.” – David Simon
Despite desperate efforts to create the next “viral” video or to fund a social impact film that turns the policy agenda on its head, the contribution of storytelling to social change is cumulative–and it takes time.
A single story can evoke passion, promote empathy, teach, enrage, or empower its audience to take action–but it alone will not change the world. But every now and then you get to be part of an argument, and that feels good.
One TYPE of story can’t change the world either; we cannot live on didactic social issue films alone. Pop culture–even the really bad stuff–contributes, as do the personal stories we tell each other (online and IRL) or that we hear on the news. Art and music inspire us to see the world differently, or to be willing to do so.
Even a simple photograph can make a difference. The image of Michael Brown’s father yelling in pain at his son’s funeral, sweat soaking the front of his shirt, must have led even some of the most callous among us to realize something must be done to stop the war on young black men in this country.
Over the past few years, the acceleration in the movement to ensure the civil rights of the LGBTQ community has been remarkable–even dizzying at times. While in the past decade there has been a sense that progress—particularly marriage equality—would come simply through the passage of time and a change in generational leadership, many of us still presumed the “inevitable” was years down the road.
Without a doubt, this progress can be attributed to a whole bunch of activists across this country, busting their asses and using their smarts to change the minds of policymakers and judges. But storytelling has been an accelerant to the pace of change, including the personal “coming out” stories so many have had the courage to tell at the risk of rejection, discrimination, and even violence.
In a 2013 Pew survey of LGBT Americans, 70 percent expressed their belief that “knowing someone who is LGBT helps a lot in terms of making society more accepting of the LGBT population.” When President Obama sat down with Robin Roberts on ABC News in 2012, becoming the first sitting U.S. President publicly to voice his support for marriage equality, he shared that dinner table conversations with his daughters Sasha and Malia about their friends’ same sex parents were what contributed to his changing views.
It is more difficult to hate when the object of your hostility is your child, your colleague, your neighbor, your teacher or, it seems, the parents of your children’s friends.
We created a timeline, LGBTQ Storytelling and Social Change, out of our own curiosity. We knew that storytelling – personal and pop culture – had played a role in progress in the LGBTQ rights movement, but we wanted to map the progression and to see the relationship over time of storytelling, social milestones and policy change. From Henry Gerber to Jennicet Gutierrez, from The Ladder to How to Survive a Plague, from President Eisenhower’s policy to ban “homosexuals” from working for the federal government to the U.S. Senate’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we’ve done that.
It is a timeline that reveals small steps and giant leaps forward as well as frequent and devastating falls backward. It is, oddly, a testament to both impatience (with injustice) and patience (with the long haul). It reflects that, even as gay characters became more prominent in films and television, gay people of color did not. It reflects the actions of presidents and other policy makers, bigots, activists, writers, actors, filmmakers, designers, magazine editors, murderers, artists, reality show stars, judges, musicians, athletes, and Dear Abby.
The triumphs remind us of how much has been done to get us to where we are and of the people who carried the burden, both the names in bold and those who will never be adequately acknowledged. They also remind us of how much more work still needs to be done.
We can celebrate love, but we can’t allow a wedding veil to block our view of the discriminatory practices that prevent many gay and transgender people–particularly people of color–from getting or keeping jobs or finding a home.
We can smile at a photo of Laverne Cox with the President and First Lady, but we shouldn’t forget to weep in response to the transgender women who have been murdered in the United States since the beginning of 2015: Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Papi Edwards, Bri Golec, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Penny Proud, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, India Clarke, K.C. Haggard, Amber Monroe, Shade Schuler, Ashton O’Hara, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, and Tamara Dominiguez.
The process of putting the timeline together made it clear how much we have (and want) to learn. We’re confident that, despite our efforts, we’ve left things out that should be included. If you think there’s a story we should add to our timeline, let us know. Email me at alison AT whatisaggregate DOT com. Tell us a story.