“So, what do you guys think of the equal sign in people’s profile pictures?”
At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond to this question posed by a fellow student in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library last week, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
On the one hand, the Human Rights Campaign’s red equal sign popping up all over my newsfeed had a powerful effect, providing a clear visual representation of the large support of same-sex marriage among Millennials in particular. Friday, Facebook announced its finding that “significantly more (U.S. Facebook) users — roughly 2.7 million (120 percent) more, updated their profile photo on Tuesday, March 26,” which was the day of the Prop. 8 oral arguments, “compared to the previous Tuesday.” In fact, during this time period, Washtenaw County had the largest increase in profile picture changes in the country, and many other counties with college towns were near the top of the list.
While it’s great to see such enthusiasm on social media for a cause that’s finally getting the widespread support it deserves, I couldn’t help but think: Here we go again. Remember Kony 2012? How about the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act blackouts?
It’s true that these viral sensations produced some beneficial outcomes. Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video resulted in the Senate “condemning” Joseph Kony and devoting more resources to go after Kony and his guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. These were all positive developments, but we still haven’t caught Kony. And how often do we hear about Kony or other violence these days? Hardly ever.
Both SOPA and PIPA didn’t become laws, largely due to the widespread online protests. However, the ongoing issue of online piracy has disappeared from the national political conversation ever since the bills died in Congress.
Notice a pattern?
Of course, there are a few differences with the current viral phenomenon. It’s much more difficult for citizens to influence the actions of Supreme Court justices than members of Congress. And while most Americans didn’t know about Kony, SOPA or PIPA before the wave of online protests began, the issue of same-sex marriage is already very prominent in the national political conversation. From President Barack Obama’s declaration last May to Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s recent announcement of his change of heart, same-sex marriage has received plenty of attention from politicians and journalists.
However, I have no doubt that the red equal sign will soon follow in the footsteps of its viral predecessors. In a few days or weeks, people will change their profile pictures to other pictures, last week’s Supreme Court cases will fade from the news cycle and life will largely return to normal.
However, I’m certainly not diminishing the significance of last week’s events. The Supreme Court cases were huge milestones in the fight for the legalization of same-sex marriage. But same-sex marriage supporters have to be careful not to let this moment of increased visibility fade away from Americans’ minds.
Americans have a tendency to fixate on one topic for a short period of time and then move on to the next topic soon afterwards. Many Americans are already beginning to move on from the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that occurred in December. Thursday, Obama tried to revive some of the momentum for new gun-control legislation that followed the shootings. “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten,” he said. “I haven’t forgotten those kids.”
If same-sex marriage supporters want to keep the attention of politicians, the news media and the American people, they should keep posting a variety of items on social media and asking their friends and followers to share them. They should hold large rallies in various parts of the country to attract the local or national news media. They should call their lawmakers as often as they can to get them to support same-sex marriage and fight for this cause. This latter strategy is becoming easier to do every day. “As far as I can tell, political leaders are falling all over themselves to endorse your side of the case,” Chief Justice John Roberts remarked to the lawyers challenging the same-sex marriage bans last week.
It’s great that people are expressing their support for same-sex marriage during this historic time. But changing a Facebook picture is only the first step toward achieving lasting social change.
Michael Spaeth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.