note: a lengthy conversation with a (self-identified) white, upper class, educated, straight, male gay ally led me to rethink, and revise slightly, the title of this post. It was previously titled "yay gay rights! boo rich white people!"
The Obama Administration announced this week that it will extend health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Setting aside for a moment the important questions about the motivation behind this move, this policy is a significant victory for the gay rights movement. First, as members of the GLBT community know, the difference between a workplace that does not offer benefits to same-sex partners of employees and a workplace that does is like the difference between a dial-up internet connection and broadband.
On a tangentially related note, it turns out that 17 percent of Americans with internet access get online using dialup service.
Perhaps more significantly, only 67 percent of Americans have internet access of any sort in their homes. Predictably, the elderly, poor, less educated, and black or hispanic Americans are far less likely to have internet access than are white people with a bachelor's degree or better. Eighty-six percent of Americans with a college degree have internet access in their homes.
Aside from the obvious social justice issues inherent in the above statistics, you may be wondering what this has to do with health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
Information travels fast in a highly connected society, which is why I learned about the new health insurance policy for federal employees before it was officially announced by the Obama administration. Internet access is like high-speed gossiping, but with one added wrinkle: It also supports collective action. Gay rights groups are mobilizing their supporters, arguing that the Obama administration's move, while the right one to make, is intended to mollify GLBT supporters who are angry that Obama has appeared to back down from his pledge to support gay rights. (Mainly they're mad that Obama's Justice Department filed a brief last week that appeared to support the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. It doesn't matter that in this particular case, the Justice Department's hands are tied--since until the law itself is repealed, any court case arguing that gays have a national right to marry will be rejected.)
Groups that successfully leverage the mobilization features of the internet and other new media technologies are more likely to effect the kind of changes they hope for. Nobody--least of all me--would dare argue that this is bad, even if it means that loathsome people with loathsome ideas have the same access to these features.
What's problematic is that all of this collective action is more likely to support the interests of people with high connectivity: the wealthier, better educated, and whiter segments of our population. The gay rights movement crosses racial and socioeconomic boundaries, but many of the points of focus within this movement emphasize issues that the wealthiest and best educated members of the GLBT community care about. Adoption rights and the fight for equal access to fertility technologies, for example, matter if you have the money it takes to adopt a child or pay for visits to a fertility clinic. If you don't, then you're likely to care more about custody rights, health insurance, and protection against hate crimes.
All of which are issues embraced by the gay rights movement. It's just that mobilization--and therefore, conversation--around these issues only happen if the rich, white, and educated members of the gay population also happen to care. (In this case, they do. They most indubitably do.)
Think of other causes that give rise to collective action. The environmentalist movement is focused more on recycling, saving the polar ice caps, and protecting open space than it is on making environmentally friendly products cheaper or cleaning up the toxic superfund sites that are poisoning those who are sufficiently unlucky or poor to live too close to one. Even the fight for universal health care--an issue that surely benefits us all--is dominated by members of what Jim Gee calls the "dominant Discourse."
The argument I'm making here is, very simply, that the potential exists for participatory media to transform what we talk about, how we talk about it, and who gets to have a say in those conversations; but that so far at least, participatory media is being used in ways that continue to silence those who have traditionally been kept out of these conversations.
To paraphrase Jay Lemke: Yes, there's some hyperbole going on in this blogpost. But far less than you may wish.
There's also hope, of course. The ongoing protests in Iran, supported via participatory technologies, are only the most current and exciting example of how an entire country can be mobilized, even despite a worst-case-scenario dictatorship, via new media resources. It's just that it often takes the worst case scenario for this to happen.