Social Media Campaign For National Coming Out Week Has Roots In L.A.
It had nothing to do with legalizing marijuana nor did it address "whoregate" and "maidgate," the latest scandals in California’s gubernatorial race.
Instead, he was asked this past week to “donate” his main profile picture to National Coming Out Day by colorizing it and including the word “Out.”
Wong, who is gay, joined 20 to 30 of his friends who changed their profile pictures in the past week.
They did so as part of “Count Me Out,” a grassroots social media movement tied to National Coming Out Day 2010. Social media users are encouraged to change their profile pictures on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and FourSquare to a tinted rainbow hue with the word “Out” or “Ally.” The campaign is designed to show support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
Sexual orientation bullying has dominated headlines in recent weeks with the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly streamed video of him having a sexual encounter with a man.
Zach Harrington, a 19-year-old boy from Oklahoma, took his life Sunday after attending a City Council meeting where a proposal to honor Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender history for the month of October brought verbal vitriol and anti-gay sentiment.
Speaking at the Human Rights Campaign annual dinner Saturday night, Jarrett said, “No young person should have to endure a life of relentless taunts and harassment, just because they're gay…We all have to ensure that we are creating an environment in our schools, our communities and our country, that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The recent release of a 2009 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network survey of 7,621 middle school and high school students found that “nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Nearly a third of LGBT students skipped at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.”
Three weeks ago, the recent spate of suicides sparked a flurry of media coverage and a conversation among a few young, gay leaders from grassroots LGBT equality organizations in Los Angeles.
One of the founders, who spoke with Neon Tommy, said the small group of about five organizers whom he described as “young professionals” living in Los Angeles and in their mid- to late-20s and early 30s, wish to remain anonymous.
Facebook. Twitter. Flickr. YouTube. National Coming Out Day. Anonymity? Something doesn’t fit.
In a world with no privacy, and on a day that’s supposed to be all about touting who you are, it comes as a surprise that the creators of “Count Me Out” would want to remain nameless.
But they have nothing to hide, the founder said. Instead, they want to be part of the crowd.
“It’s not that we have any fears about being named as people who created this project, it’s because we don’t want this to be about who did it,” he said. “It’s not about the origins, it’s about the spirit of community and support.”
Though the people behind the initial idea were from the gay and lesbian communities, the founder said the next step involved reaching out to leaders in the transgender and straight communities and leaders of national and local equality groups.
“We wanted to make sure we had their blessing because we wanted it to be something where everyone could get involved,” he said, noting that there were several discussions about the words to use on the images (“Out” and “Ally”) so that the language was “inclusive, fair and positive.”
“‘Ally’ because it’s really important to give people a chance to participate who aren’t gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual. People that are our mothers, our fathers, our coworkers that feel strongly about equality issues that could make a statement through social media to say that they’re our friends, our supporters, that they had our back,” he said.
The organizers created an “instruction manual” or summary sheet with information on how to create the picture so there would be uniformity in the campaign’s presentation.
The very nature of the campaign is “self-propelling.”
“The people that started it all work with grassroots organizations,” the founder said. “So one person becomes 10 people becomes 100 people really quickly.”
Though the idea got its roots in L.A., the campaign has found legs in states across the U.S. and organizers have spoken with people worldwide about their involvement.
As of Tuesday night, the one-sheet had been viewed more than 65,000 times.
Much of the idea’s appeal came from being quick, easy, free and anonymous, the founder said.
“The whole spirit of this is that it’s not attached to an organization,” he said. “This was a way to create a movement that was free from agenda.”
The campaign gained traction on Facebook and Twitter but is also visible on Flickr and YouTube.
Blake Pfeil, who graduated from Emerson College in May and is now developing ESL children's theater in Korea, made a YouTube video describing why the cause is important to him and showing viewers how to change their pictures—the least he could do from overseas, he said. He’s also made an album on Facebook compiling pictures of his friends who have changed their pictures.
Craig Nelson, 23, a West Hollywood resident said he started noticing other people changing their profile pictures a couple of days ago.
“My newsfeed slowly started turning rainbow,” he said. “In light of all the teen suicides lately it just seemed like it’s an important time to come out and be visible and show…you can have a great life and that everything is normal and changes for the better once you do come out.”
The Count Me Out hashtag on Twitter (#countmeout) is sparking streams of conversation between people who have never met.
"I'm a big fan of hers and Amber Heard's and really support them and the LGBT community,” she said. “I really wanted to make a contribution, no matter how small, and raise some awareness by showing followers that I'm an ally.”
Anthony Smith of Los Angeles has been actively involved in promoting the campaign on Twitter.
He began spreading the message in his office when he mentioned it to three of his close colleagues and asked them to participate. From there, his colleagues reached out to their friends and the campaign evolved.
Smith, who is 30 years old and works in investment banking, said he came out when he was 27.
“I still really haven’t had the complete sit-down with all my family back in Louisiana,” he said, noting that younger people tend to take more drastic measures in these situations. “Over the last 72 hours I’ve gotten so many messages of younger people 17 to 20 or 21, who actually changed their photos on Twitter. One kid in particular from North Carolina was expressing how nervous he was, and so I took that and sent it to people in my group backing this initiative so we could all reach out to him personally.”
As of Sunday night, the boy had plans to change his photo and post a video on YouTube coming out to friends and family this week, Smith said.
The experience of being bullied is one many in the LGBT community can relate to.
“I remember the verbal bullying,” Smith said. “What it made me do was get further in the closet and try and act straighter and give off an image of someone who I wasn’t.”
The founder, who came out in college, said growing up wasn’t easy for him.
“Even before I came out I was called a fag and it just doesn’t feel good,” he said. “Name calling hurts particularly when it’s something that you know you can’t change about yourself, and it’s being used against you negatively.”
Though the founder was raised on the East Coast, he said this kind of bullying and harassment is present everywhere.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in California or if you’re in Kansas, everyone has experienced or witnessed someone getting taunted or bullied or told that they’re less than everyone else,” he said. “The fact that some people are getting so harassed that they’re even thinking about hurting themselves and that we can sit by and let that go uncorrected is just unfathomable. So if it takes one little art project on Facebook to suddenly create and increase visibility and awareness about the issue, we’ll stop at nothing to make sure that no one else hurts themselves or someone else because they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”
Josh Einsohn, founder of ALLorNotAtAll, a marriage equality organization, who is based in L.A., said the recent suicide headlines stirred up old memories for him of 1995 when he came out.
Einsohn said getting involved in the Count Me Out campaign was one step in a bigger movement.
“I don't know that changing my picture on a Facebook or Twitter page in L.A. is going to help the kid who lives in rural Montana, but I have to believe that if we try hard enough, we'll start to show these kids that there is a reason to hang in there. That there is a community out there that is ready to embrace them if their family and friends are not. That it does get better.”
But ultimately, the founder said, the campaign’s success comes down to the effect it has on one person.
“These are the lives of our community members that are being threatened right now,” the founder said. ”If one person sees this and is thinking about bringing harm to themselves, and they see that some random stranger has the strength to change their picture and put the word ‘Out’ on it—that could change their lives, that could give them hope.
“And if that one person doesn’t bring harm to themselves because they see one picture, then this was all for a good reason.”