If you want to affect change, follow this simple formula. Ask yourself: 

  • What needs to happen?
  • Who can make it happen?
  • What story do they need to hear?
  • Who should they hear it from?
  • How can we tell them?

Taking on LGBTQ rights in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East is one of the toughest social and human rights issues one could engage in. Like women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights is low on the list of driving priorities, especially for those in power, who use this power to discriminate. Discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, or even simply being an immigrant, is a big problem today, all across Eastern and Western Europe. The anti-gay rhetoric used by Russia in particular, to instill fear and hatred among citizens whose countries are working toward European Union association, must be countered.

In a social change context, stories can be used to soften the ground before anti-discrmination laws are attempted. This will embolden legislation and advocacy strategies with the political and public will to make the legal frameworks meaningful. Here is what I tell LGBT advocates:

  • Embrace emotion, humanize the everyday reality of the situation
  • Tell stories – both small ones about individuals and big ones about where society is going (and think strategically about messengers..straight allies are important partners in humanizing the experience)
  • Speak from community values. Issues divide, values unite. Politics is about morality.

Compelling examples of this in action:

  • Check out the portal Da Se Zna, with the purpose to keep track of reported and resolved cases against LGBTQI people in one place and to direct victims to the authorities responsible to react in a legally prescribed way. Leading LGBTQ organizations of Serbia launched this creative initiative.
  • Gay in Macedonia photo essay written about in the Economist. Check out the feature here.
  • The Sochi Olympics were an opportunity to highlight the oppression of gay and lesbian people in Russia, here is one example of the hundreds of stories featured in mainstream media.
  • The US-based Freedom to Marry campaign´s video series with stories from straight allies.
  • Powerful example political ads from campaigns in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
  • A description of how LGBT activists in Albania tell their story at various gatherings to share their experience more widely and breakdown stereotypes.
  • And just for fun, who can not love this Swedish campaign to push-back on Russia’s hate agenda? “This way if you’re gay, Russia!”

The result is, that overtime, public opinion shifts, hearts soften, minds expand, paving the way for laws that can follow. In the US, more people today have gay or lesbian acquaintances, which is associated with acceptance of being gay and linked to support for rights and equality. The link between these experiences and attitudes about LGBTQI issues, specifically marriage, is strong, according to Pew Research. I was asked to give a talk on this subject for LGBT activists in Serbia recently. For more, download my presentation: LGBT Rights and Public Opinion, US.

In essence, my advice about how to create a world where LGBTQ rights are respected, flows into three basic steps.3 stages chart.001