On March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on California’s Proposition 8 and then the Defense of Marriage Act two days later. Also last Tuesday, my Facebook newsfeed turned into a checkerboard of red and pink equal signs. Variations included equal signs with bacon strips, matzo crackers, Bud Lights and — oh god, Nicolas Cage’s face. After clicking around for a bit, I was surprised to see how widespread the equal sign was. I recently learned that the image is a modified version of the Human Rights Campaign logo, but I’ll be honest and say that I was oblivious to the origin of the symbol when I decided to change my profile picture.
Now, some people who have changed their profile picture to the equal sign are getting flack because of HRC’s questionable history with the transgender community. I didn’t know that at the time — I really changed my picture mainly because I noticed that a lot of my gay friends on Facebook did, and I wanted to show my support. I mean, my profile picture at the time was a webcam pic of me eating pizza. I can afford to change my picture for the rights of my friends.
It’s definitely “slacktivism,” but who cares? People post the most mundane shit on Facebook all the time, so why not spread a message that contributes something a little more meaningful than a Buzzfeed post on corgis?
I’m starting to sound preachy, which wasn’t my intention. If you didn’t change your profile picture to the equal sign — whatever, it’s Facebook. But the cool thing about the social media support of LGBT rights is how visible it became, and how it created a discussion both online and off about issues of equality.
I was talking to my friend who told me that she can’t even fathom how gay marriage is still a debatable issue. As an article in the Onion put it, in an ideal world, the Supreme Court justices would make their decision on gay marriage in ten minutes: “Sure, who cares.”
But in reality, a lot of people care. It may be difficult for Ann Arborites to comprehend the extent of close-mindedness that plagues much of our country, but it exists, and it’s still preventing millions of Americans from the option of marriage.
Facebook recently posted a neat little map that shows the density of equality sign profile pictures by county. The West and Northeast are beautifully speckled with deep reds. The Facebook employee who posted the map — Eytan Bakshy, an alum of the University — made mention of the fact that Washtenaw County, the University’s county, had the highest percentage of profile picture changes. So, hey — go us.
But not all of the United States is so colorful. The South, for the most part, remains a bleak stretch of pale pink. Of course, Facebook profile pictures are not the sole determiner of views on LGBT support. Not everyone who supports gay marriage uses Facebook, and not everyone who supports gay marriage and uses Facebook changed profile pictures.
Still, the map reveals that, while in places like Ann Arbor gay rights may be a “well, duh” issue, not everyone in the country holds that belief. In a recent CBS poll, 53 percent of Americans believe that same-sex marriage should be legal — an improvement from a poll conducted less than a year ago that revealed that 51 percent of Americans did not believe same-sex marriage should be legal. The United States, it seems, is progressing.
And yet, according to this poll, nearly half the country doesn’t support gay marriage. And we should remember that this is more than just an issue of matrimony — it’s an issue of basic rights for the LGBT community. It’s about understanding a community on a deeper level than, “Yeah, sure, I don’t care if you get married.” And even if gay marriage is nationally legalized, that does not mean that people’s views will change, too.
As I scroll down the newsfeed, it’s clear that the red equal signs have already begun to fade. I still have mine up, but mostly because I prefer it to the pizza picture. But while our support may continue to dwindle on newsfeeds across the country, remember that this is an issue that remains unresolved. Changing your profile picture is only a first step, and while lots of people in Ann Arbor in particular changed their pictures in solidarity, that’s hardly a reason to sit back and let the social change begin. I have no idea what the court will decide, and I really hope that this isn’t an instance where The Onion runs a headline that makes more logical sense than headlines from CNN.
You can change the law, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll change people’s minds. We have to be careful to not depend on a (perceived) natural evolution over time toward progress and acceptance. While HRC may not have been the best group to lead the viral equality crusade, it’s the message behind changing our profile pictures that we should focus on. I’m honestly not sure how long it will be until the vast majority of Americans support LGBT rights, but until that day arrives, we should continue to show solidarity — even if it is something as simple as a pink equal sign over a magnified picture of Nicolas Cage’s face.
Katie Steen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.