The catalyst: Bullying captured headlines in 2010, but a sad spate of suicides, including that of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, shifted public attention to harassment of gay kids.
Still, 29-year-old Brian Elliot, who recently graduated from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School with an MBA and an MPA, didn’t think change was happening quickly enough. So he tapped into the power of friends to create Friendfactor, the first gay social network for straight people.
After several conversations with friends about LGBT rights, something clicked. “I realized that gay friends were so much more important [to many people] than gay rights,” said Elliot. He discovered that people were more apt to support friends who were gay, rather than the “abstract concept” of supporting gay rights.
“My friends didn’t know that I could be legally fired in 29 states for being gay and that I can be legally evicted from my house in over 30 states,” Elliot explained. “I realized at the rate we’re going, it may take 10 or 20 years before we get our rights.”
The act: On impulse, Elliot decided to leverage his social network and created a Give Brian Equality Facebook fan page. To 600 friends, he blasted a message: “Dear friends (and particularly my straight friends), You may not know this, but I am not a full citizen of this country — nor are the millions of other gay Americans like me [who] can be restricted from getting access to the 1,100+ federal privileges that our government gives married couples. These inequities scare me, because I want to have a family someday. How much longer will I have to wait?”
The ripple: About 300 friends immediately joined Elliot’s group. A month later, that number swelled to more than more than 19,000.
Friends and strangers posted heartfelt stories on the Facebook wall. Tim from Thailand wrote: “I’m a U.S. citizen who has been living outside of the U.S. for close to two years now. Why is that? Because my significant other is a citizen of Thailand, and because we are a same-sex couple, I cannot sponsor him for immigration into America. Thus, our only option to stay together is for me to abandon my family and life in the U.S. and for me to work as an English teacher in Thailand.”
Kelly from Minnesota wrote: “I love that you took something so basic, so beautiful, so necessary — and have started what no one else seems to be able to get moving.”
Susan from California wrote:” I’m a proud, straight mom of an awesome 27-year-old gay son and member of PFLAG … you have my 100% support!”
Getting personal has worked. The Friendfactor website launched in early November (beta version). From LGBT news flashes and educational apps to advocacy tools, Friendfactor leverages the power of Facebook’s social network via Facebook Connect to empower others to create their own campaign.
LGBT individuals create Friendfactor Advocate profiles and ping their straight friends to create Supporter profiles to support their individual fight for equality. “The reinforcement tells gay people they’re not alone at a time when anti-gay bullying and gay suicide are making headlines,” says Elliot, who believes more open conversations will make coming out or supporting an LGBT person less taboo.
Elliot’s friend and former classmate Patty Buckley, also a recent grad, turned down several lucrative job offers to become Friendfactor’s Chief Operating Officer. “We’re at a critical moment,” Patty said. “It makes me feel like my engagement really mattered, that I could really have an impact. I went from being the passive friend to becoming part of the movement.”
More than 150 people have volunteered their talents, time, and energy to support the idea. Elliot and his team were shocked by the show of support from individuals and foundations who have contributed their time and money to get Friendfactor off the ground and online.
“I believe we can be the game changers. We could help my LGBT friends achieve the same support and speed up change. Friends don’t let friends be second-class citizens.”