The Sexuality, genger & Human Rights Program

LGBT Stigma Project

For over thirty years, the LGBT movement has been waging battles issue by issue, often ballot measure by ballot measure, continuously defending the rights of LGBT people against the will of the majority. Despite a series of recent legislative and legal victories that appear to be moving at a pace faster than the setbacks, the sum of these parts falls far short of real, lived equality for all people in our society.

For example, while Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to grant same-sex couples the right to marry in 2004, this legal milestone was not enough to prevent Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover from hanging himself in April after being repeatedly victimized by anti-gay bullying at his Springfield middle school. The death of this child – several days short of his twelfth birthday and five years after the gay marriage ban was lifted – heartbreakingly demonstrates hard-won rights in court or at the ballot box do not directly translate to freedom from harassment, let alone true equality.

The fact is, even as more states allow same-sex weddings and rightful, attainable federal priorities like hate crimes legislation pass in the near term, the LGBT movement is not currently equipped with a long-term plan to end the social stigma that prompted young Carl to end his life. No law or legal protection is powerful enough to safeguard our children from being taunted in the playground or to prevent same-sex parents from being cast as unfit providers of a loving, healthy home environment. Marriage rights will not eliminate the “live your life, just not in my face” attitude that permeates society. LGBT people on the whole – not just those serving in our military – live in a perpetual state of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Conversely, the lack of a long-term strategy to change hearts and minds about LGBT people slows the movement’s ability to win, as evidenced by a powerful Proposition 8 advertisement that depicts a little girl who comes home from school and pronounces “Mommy, I can marry a princess!” to her shocked mother. This ad was successful because it effectively aroused the fear that parents experience when confronted with the idea that a child may grow up to be anything but heterosexual. The enthusiasm presented by the young daughter was accepted by viewers as a bad thing; the mother’s reaction an appropriate concern.

Even as we make political strides, “gay is good” is still a Stonewall-era slogan, not an ingrained social belief, in 2009. At the root of the controversy and conversation on every issue pertaining to LGBT rights is a subtext of deep-rooted stigma that must be addressed and eradicated.

Face Value: A New Approach to Eradicating LGBT Stigma

In conjunction with the Human Rights and Social Movements Program, Face Value will develop and employ a framework equipped to deconstruct the discrimination that LGBT individuals face as roadblocks to equality in their daily lives. The LGBT Stigma Project will not replicate or replace current legal, legislative, or political efforts on the local, state, or federal level. The project will, however, support these existing efforts to achieve its long-term goals so LGBT expression and experience are valued in American life.

The LGBT Stigma Project will apply a multi-disciplinary approach to develop a unified research and communications strategy. An advisory board of experts on LGBT stigma and psychology, opinion research, campaign communications, public relations, social movements, and branding and marketing has been assembled to oversee the design and implementation of the project. Phase I of the LGBT Stigma Project includes: (1) conducting a survey of existing research and literature on how people form and hold attitudes toward LGBT people; (2) examining how social attitudes affect political behavior; and (3) identifying how best to craft effective polling instruments to unearth new data about the complex relationship between prejudice and politics. An advisory board of leading academics will meet at the Carr Center in October 2009 and March 2010 to discuss and direct the Project’s research.

The combined research findings of the first phase will inform message development and lead to Phase II of the LGBT Stigma Project: the design and implementation of a massive public education campaign. Throughout this process, we will draw on and learn from models that have proven to transform public opinion, such as successful anti-tobacco and HIV campaigns. Face Value and the Human Rights and Social Movements Program will also collaborate with partner organizations to equip allies with the findings and new messages to strengthen existing LGBT policy, organizing, and advocacy work.

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