Rainbows and Equal Signs: How Facebook Raised the Profile of Marriage Equality

June 30, 2015

Last Friday in a landmark U.S Supreme Court decision ruling 5-4, same-sex marriage was officially legalized in all fifty states. Some may quickly respond, “It’s about time!” While others remark at how relatively fast such change has come about. In just a matter of decades, same-sex civil marriage has gone from being a cause advanced by a small handful of activists to one that’s been embraced by 60 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallop poll. Such a shift has occurred much faster than say, the legalization of interracial marriage in the United States, especially considering there was no legal same-sex marriage in the country at all until Massachusetts permitted it in 2004. How has support for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights grown so rapidly?

Perhaps an important factor to look at is the impact social media has in our ever interconnected world. Two years ago the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in yet another landmark decision, ruling it unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Several months before the decision, 3 million people changed their profile picture images to a red equal sign- the logo of the Human Rights Campaign- as a way to support marriage equality. More than 104 million Americans—about one-third of the population—were exposed to an equal-sign profile picture in their feed. This social media activism demonstrated, perhaps for the first time, that a critical mass of Americans already supported marriage equality. That number continues to grow: in response to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, 26 million people around the world turned their profile pictures rainbow with Facebook’s celebrate pride filter. In fact, social media exploded with color following the decision as brands, companies, politicians and celebrities demonstrated their support.

What makes social media platforms so effective? Perhaps there’s the statistic that voters are considerably more likely to support same-sex marriage if they know someone personally who is gay or lesbian— and Facebook quite literally puts a human face on the LGBT civil rights movement. More and more, people are choosing to come out and share their stories via social media. It helps to also have a universally recognizable symbol, the rainbow, to stand as a visible statement of marriage equality. It may also be that the likelihood to engage in activism increases with the observation of other individual’s activism. Thus, a movement goes viral.

While change has come fast, it certainly did not come easy. And while the Supreme Court’s decision was a huge win for the marriage equity movement, it does not mean the fight for LGBT rights is close to being over. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” The power of social media and storytelling may be (one of many) keys to changing the way our society views, responds to and advocates for LGBT rights.

Sarah Shimazaki