Social movements around the world have given women the ability to vote, overthrown governments, and legalized gay marriage in the US. They have achieved incredible things, but for every successful movement, there are others that have failed. What can past movements teach us about how to lead successful present ones?
Gay Rights Movement And Societal Norms
The U.S. has come a long way in regards to gay rights since the 1950s when the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest LGBTQ+ organizations, was founded. Back then, gay marriage was illegal in every U.S. state, and there was very little acceptance. We certainly haven’t achieved equality since then, but our society as a whole has become so much more accepting.
People worked hard and risked their lives for what the movement has achieved and what we have today. And one of the reasons they were able to succeed is because they focused on changing people’s minds.
The Gay Rights Movement focused on government policy in some ways. They got “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repealed in 2010. They brought Obergefell v. Hodges to the Supreme Court. But more importantly, they worked to change society’s stance on the issue. They spread a message of love, and they changed people’s minds. In 2004, 60% of American adults opposed gay marriage. Now only 31% oppose it.
The gay rights movement was successfully able to shift the nation’s attitude towards gay couples. People in the US became more accepting of same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that made all states recognize gay marriage followed.
The gay rights movement’s focus on society’s opinion gave gay people much more than the ability to marry. Now there is representation in mainstream media, though it is sometimes problematic, and acceptance in many places, though certainly not all, in the U.S. In the 2020 Democratic primary, Pete Buttigieg, a gay man, became a serious candidate.
Changing the societal norm is easier said than done, what concrete actions can we take to do so?
In the U.S, there is a correlation between population density and political ideology. Dense areas, like cities, tend to be much more liberal than rural areas. There are a lot of possible reasons why, including easier access to education, but one notable one is that cities have a lot of diversity.
In many rural areas in the U.S, you can go your whole life only interacting with people that are similar to you. Meanwhile, cities are full of people that are different from each other, whether it be because of race, religion, language, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. People who live in cities have personal interactions with people who are different from them on a daily basis, and that fosters understanding.
This phenomenon can give us a clue about how to change people’s minds — strong-tie connections.
When looking at social movements, it is not an individual’s passion for the cause that most influences whether they will engage in the movement. It has more to do with whether a person has a personal connection to the movement, perhaps a close friend who is already involved. Malcolm Gladwell calls these strong-tie connections, and they are essential to a successful movement.
The Gay Rights Movement was able to change general societal norms because of these connections. It shows us that to change the norm, we must have personal interactions with people that disagree with us. That is the only way we will have a chance at changing their minds.
What Past Movements Teach Us
Today, it feels so impossible to work with people with different political or social views. It seems even more impossible to get through to them, never mind change their mind. It feels like we might as well ignore them.
But what past and present social movements have shown us is that the most effective social movements focus on shifting societal norms. To claim true victory, a social movement needs the support of the people. That means having conversations with and creating connections with people who don’t think exactly like us.
Social movements with long-lasting effects teach us that success isn’t about beating the other side, it’s about bringing them to your side.
Social movements, by definition, are grassroots movements. Groups of dedicated individuals have achieved incredible things. For those of us that are currently fighting for what we believe in, never forget that ordinary people are our greatest strength.
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