Getting horizontal

Social activist and women’s rights doyenne Judy Rebick calls it horizontal collaboration: the idea that we can use social media to create dialogue across diverse networks in order to loosen the restrictive bonds of capitalism, patriarchy and religion.

Rebick argues in her book Transforming Power that social media brings new layers of diversity to social movements, mostly via international connections that could not have existed before the internet. She is convinced social media is one of the strongest emerging tools for empowering those who have been voiceless.

While the previously silenced voices of the queer community have grown together over the years into an increasingly powerful din, we witnessed on a new scale in 2011 what can happen when social media is added to the brew. Activism has been taken to a new level, one tweet at a time.

It appeared in many ways at the beginning of 2011 that several of our old fights were resurfacing, rearing ugly heads we thought had long been chopped off.

Take, for example, the ongoing fight for gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Ontario Catholic schools. From the moment in January that Halton Catholic District School Board chair Alice Anne LeMay compared a group of thoughtful students trying to support one another to Nazis, it was evident we still had plenty of work to do.

Bigots in the school system actively trying to silence empowered students — this story sent a message that we had become too complacent. If homophobia had been conquered in many of our adult lives (including in our workplaces) it was still doing its dirty work in the lives of our youth.

The tentacles of this story reached far and wide because it touched on so many other heartbreaking tales in 2011 — bullying, suicide, the murder of queer people in the developing world and, generally, discrimination.

The story had legs because of social media, spreading because of our shared fight for respect and liberation — a fight that has no borders. The queer community was able to come together in this battle and present a united front with a simple message — two qualities well suited to social media.

Twitter and Facebook are larger versions of those town hall debates we all know; the kind where everyone ends up shouting and the loudest voice wins. Or gets re-tweeted the most often.

So it is when we speak with one loud voice in horizontal collaboration that the queer community is most effective, and at the beginning of 2012 we can see the fruits of our social media labour in several key pieces of legislation in Ontario.

The recently released Accepting Schools Act is the culmination of a year’s worth of pressure on the Ontario Liberals — hundreds of articles and Tweets from Xtra alone. The soon-to-be-announced diversity training for Ontario teachers we report on in this issue is another key success. Likewise the Ontario attorney general’s withdrawal from intervening in two Supreme Court HIV criminalization cases.


“We got through to them, I guess,” HIV/AIDS activist Tim McCaskell wrote to me this week about this development.

Politicians and decision-makers are also more than ever engaged with social media, and they are prepared to listen to that loudest voice.

But they have other online “friends” besides those in our community.

I spoke this past week to a staffer at Ontario’s Education Ministry. She told me Canada Christian College’s Charles McVety and his supporters (the people responsible for the transphobic election ads that ran in the National Post and the Sun) are also loud, with a united voice; constantly applying pressure to lawmakers torn between what they believe is right and what their constituents demand.

When the queer community is equally loud and united, lawmakers, with time, are more willing to listen to us and less likely to brush us aside. That is a triumph we can celebrate thanks to years of fighting to be heard.

My wish for 2012 is for us to remain united, get louder and be horizontal more often.

Happy New Year!

Danny Glenwright was formerly Xtra’s managing editor. He has a background in human rights journalism and media training and a masters in international cooperation and development from Italy’s University of Pavia. Before coming to Xtra, Danny was the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary news service in South Africa and a regular contributor to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian news. He has also worked in Sierra Leone, Palestine, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

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