“When I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay. Because I could draw and my uncle was. I told my mom with teacher streaming down my face, shes like, ” Ben, you’ve liked girls since before pre-k.” Yeah, I guess she was a point, just a bunch of stereotypes all in my head–I remember doing math like, ” Yeah, I’m good at little league.” It’s all just a preconceived idea of what it all meant for those who like the same sex.”
These lyrics come from Macklemore’s song “Same Love.” During the 2014 Nebraska School Activities Association State Speech Tournament, Michael Barth, a student from Gordon-Rushville High School, recited the lyrics above in a number of his poems about gender identity and acceptance. He made a name for himself when he won the Class C1 poetry division and became the State Champion. After his astonishing win, he was selected to perform in a prestigious “Best of the Best” showcase on the Nebraska Educational Television PBS and NRP station. Prior to recording, NSAA director Rhonda Blandford-Green requested that Barth change his award winning program. According to Buzzfeed.com, her reasoning was, “We don’t want to use a showcase for the best of the best to promote personal agendas.”
This issue immediately resulted in a national controversy because Barth’s freedom of speech and equal opportunity were significantly limited. Classmates and other individuals who disagreed with Blandford-Green’s decision quickly created a Facebook group in support of Barth’s freedom of speech. Since its creation, the “Support Michael and Acceptance of Speech” group has gained 1,641 supporters. Because of the activism seen on this Facebook group, Blandford-Green ultimately overturned her decision and allowed Barth to present his original program on Nebraska television. This Facebook group played a major role in gaining enough support to overturn Blandford-Green’s decision. Barth would not have been able to present his original program if it was not for the social media activism and slacktivism produced by his supporters.
First, the use of slacktivism was a contributing factor in helping Barth gain national support for gender acceptance. According to an article on the Huffington Post by John Conway titled “Notes on Slacktivism,” slacktivism is the ideology for people who want to appear to be doing something for a particular cause without actually doing anything. Their token support can be in the form of liking something on Facebook or signing an online petition. In reality, slacktivists cannot show meaningful support for a cause because they are not physically fighting for some type of change.
However, in Michael Barth’s case, slacktivism did have a large, positive effect. The vast number of individuals who joined the group helped Barth gain enough support to eventually overturn Blandford-Green’s decision. Support was all he needed to show the NSAA that his program should be heard. As people reacted, both locally and nationally, Blandford-Green realized that her decision was more controversial than she had ever expected. After supporters signed many petitions and wrote statuses on the group’s wall about their concerns, Blandford-Green was encouraged to take a different stance on the matter. This goes to show that slacktivism is more than just “meaningless” support; it can actually be beneficial in creating social change.
Second, as we look at slacktivism in relation to this issue, we can see how closely it relates to the term social media activism. The “Support Michael and Acceptance of Speech” Facebook group is a prime example of this type of activism. According to Wikipedia, media activism utilizes media and other communication outlets to promote social and political change. The group was able to use Facebook as a platform to quickly broadcast information regarding Barth’s situation and gain supporters. Many supporters did more than just support Barth’s cause by pressing the join button; they rallied around him and fought for social change by becoming involved in more active ways, which will be illustrated below. Each supporter brought his or her own voice to the group and stood up for what he or she believed in to support Barth’s freedom of speech.
To begin, one post that greatly illustrates social media activism is by supporter Joshua Hatler. He is currently a freshman at Bradley University and an alum of Pekin Community High School, where he was a member of the speech team. On April 2, 2014, Hatler posted an email that he sent to Blandford-Green on the group’s wall. It addressed the issue of Barth being suggested to revise his speech because it contained a “personal agenda.” Hatler had quite a lot to say in regards to this controversy and shared his ideas on how it should have been handled.
Hatler showed an immense amount of activism in his post by taking this seemingly “small town” issue and making it his personal agenda to guarantee that Blandford-Green knew she was in the wrong with her decision to ask Michael Barth to change his speech. Going above and beyond just taking the slacktavism approach of joining the page and commenting on how Barth should be able to perform his original speech, Hatler decided to take a stance and write a letter to Blandford-Green addressing the issue at hand and later posted it on the group’s wall.
In the letter, Hatler connected Barth’s achievements to ones that Hatler had made when he was on the speech team during his high school career. Hatler brought in key ideas of how a speech team is supposed to be a safe place for students to express themselves without any judgment and how this freedom was helpful in growth and development throughout his high school experience. Halter also pointed out to Blandford-Green that Barth’s speech was created to serve as an educational tool to make people aware of transgender inequality within our country.
Throughout the letter, Hatler’s main idea was freedom of speech. Hatler highlighted these areas while addressing Barth’s right to perform his original speech on Nebraska television. This letter outlined the issue at hand in a professional way without directly criticizing Blandford-Green’s character. It also sent a message to younger generations that it is acceptable to bring up issues within our nation that we want to see changed. Just as Judy Baca’s art work was a form of empowerment among the Latina women as discussed by Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre, Michael’s speech and the reaction that arose from the request to revise it was a form of empowerment and unity, not only for the transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities, but also for communities of people who share the same passion of addressing this inequality issue.
Another post that demonstrates social media activism was written by one of the group’s key supporters—Michael Barth’s mother Kim Buchan. Days after her son was told he could not present his speech on Nebraska television, Buchan began writing posts on the group’s wall because she did not want to wait around for a response. She was determined to take a stance for her son by having her voice be heard publically. She went beyond the expectation of just joining the page to show her support; she took a stance and became personally connected by sharing her concerns.
Like Hatler, the main idea of Buchan’s post was about her son’s freedom of speech. She made sure to express the idea of freedom of speech while addressing his restrictions for performing on television. This being said, this post was written in such a way that it did not place blame on Rhonda Blandford-Green, nor did it criticize her as a person.
Throughout Buchan’s April 3, 2014 post, she was able to express her concerns regarding Blandford-Green’s decision. She began her post by discussing how the phrase “personal agenda” bothered her. She stated that every speech performance will have a “personal agenda” no matter the context. Everything a person does, including the decision made by Blandford-Green, has a “personal agenda.” Barth’s program had a personal agenda. It was to show people the importance of being loving and accepting of others. At no point was he speaking as an advocate for gay rights, transgender rights, or the rights of straight individuals. So why did Blandford-Green restrict Barth from showcasing his program on television for having a “personal agenda” if she held one as well?
Another concern brought up by Buchan was the idea of censorship. According to the Facebook post, her greatest fear was that the only lesson the NSAA would learn from this situation would be to censor a topic before it is even presented. Attempting to censor Barth’s program and limit his freedom of speech did not stop him from having a voice; it only made his voice for gender acceptance even stronger. The concerns brought up in this post were able to shine a light on how Barth’s freedom of speech was restricted and how he was not given equal opportunity. By voicing her concerns to the public (gathering 494 likes, the second highest on the page), Buchan was able to empower others to become supporters, thus making people aware of the issue at hand.
The third activist we will be discussing is the main subject of this Facebook page—Michael Barth. On April 3, 2014, hours after his mother wrote the post discussed above, Barth wrote a message to his supporters:
This message shows on many levels the significance of social media activism. The support the Facebook group gave to Barth’s issue allowed his winning speech to be presented. Barth’s sincerity in how he thanked his supporters, and also his passion for the topic at hand, played a major role in the support he received.
On March 28, 2014 Barth presented his speech at the Nebraska School Activities Association Speech Championships. In his speech, found on Huffington Post, Barth wrote, “I am not here to talk about what it means to be gay or what it means to be straight. I am here to talk about what it means to ignore society’s expectations of yourself and to be your own individual person. These selections demonstrate the struggles that both men and women go through on a daily basis when they are being judged by their peers for not acting like their gender ‘should.’”
The way Barth immersed himself in this topic was inspiring to many people who have dealt with the issue at hand and/or those who thought that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues should be brought to center stage instead of being swept under the rug. Throughout this post, Barth was expressing his right to freedom of speech and promoting equal opportunity with those who have different gender orientations. He chose to become a voice for those who are unable to speak up about the acceptance of gender equality, and this is how he gained supporters.
Also in his post, Barth was able to openly discuss how this ordeal was a life changing experience and he would not have changed what had happened. He explains that this experience opened his eyes to the issues around him and helped him grow as a person. Many people placed in the same situation would not have responded in such a manner. Barth, at a young age, was able to see a glimpse into a world of issues that most people try to ignore. He showed no hostility towards Blandford-Green as this issue was being resolved. After having the opportunity to be interviewed with her, Blandford-Green admitted that the rules regarding censorship need to be reviewed. In the conclusion of his post, Barth expressed his opinion about Blandford-Green by saying that she was not the “evil lady that some people believed her to be.”
Overall, this post is a prime example of social media activism. Barth used Facebook to communicate his feelings about the issue to create social change. He did so in such a way without directly criticizing Blandford-Green’s actions. He took a stance for what he believed in with sincerity and positivity and this is how he gained support to restore his freedom of speech.
We have been discussing supporters and how they helped Barth overturn Blandford-Green’s decision. Finally, we will discuss how one supporter, Reginald T. Brown, connected Barth’s situation to a picture he found in relation to the identities of gay and straight individuals. Below is the picture Brown uploaded on April 5, 2014:
This picture could be used as a slogan for Barth’s Facebook group. It encompasses the main stance that Barth and his advocates have taken to spread awareness for gender acceptance. People today have the mindset that if something is taboo, they pretend the issue does not exist. If being gay is a choice, people question when others decide to become straight. By saying this, it forces people to reconsider what life would be like if heterosexuals were discriminated against.
This slogan connects to Barth’s speech in the form of abstract liberalism. Abstract liberalism uses ideas like” equal opportunity” and “choice” to explain matters so that others can appear reasonable. As we have discussed in previous paragraphs, this is not technically the case in Michael Barth’s situation. If Barth had “equal opportunity.” then he should have been able to present his original program about gender acceptance on Nebraska television without question. Having the ability to use his freedom of speech would have allowed him to discuss issues that are presented in the picture above. However, since Blanford-Green did not allow Barth to present his program on television because it expressed a “personal agenda.” it took away Barth’s freedom of speech and equal opportunity to express what truly mattered to him most, love and acceptance of all individuals and their choice to be who they want to be. Overall, this picture posted by Brown shined a light on an important issue: abstract liberalism. This idea helped the group fight for Barth’s equal opportunity and choice.
After reviewing the “Support Michael and Acceptance of Speech” Facebook group more in depth, it is clear how social media activism, slacktavism, and at one point, digital artivism, played a major role in providing Barth with the support he needed to be able to perform his original program. These forms of activism were used to help make people aware of Barth’s lack of opportunity. Blandford-Green’s request to have Barth change his program took away the opportunity to speak freely on a subject close to him. His natural born liberties, including his freedom of speech, were compromised when Blandford-Green censored Barth from performing his original program. Without the use of social media activism and slacktavism, Barth’s story would not have reached the number of people nor gained the amount of support that it did. It is because of the large amount of support Barth gained in such a short period of time that encouraged Blandford-Green to overturn her decision and ultimately allowed Barth to perform his original speech program. Hopefully, his program had a positive effect on many youth who may be undergoing their own struggles with gender identity and acceptance.
Barth, M. [Michael]. (2014, April 3). I want to thank absolutely everyone for all the support you have given me and my speech. I take no credit for all that has happened as this literally would have been impossible if all of you were not supporting this message. Thank you! [Facebook status update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/574362656005329/
Brown. R.T. (2014, April 5). If being gay is a choice. When did you decide to become straight. [Facebook picture] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/574362656005329/
Buchan, K. [Kim]. (2014, April 3). I have the distinct honor of being Michael’s mother – and I would like to thank everyone for the overwhelming support he received. [Facebook status update] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/574362656005329/
Conway, J. (2012). Notes on slactivism. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-conway/slacktivism_b_1378247.html
Hatler, J. [Joshua]. (2014, April 2). The e-mail I sent to Ms. Blanford-Green. Of course it was followed with an automated reply. [Facebook status update] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/574362656005329/
Karlan, S. (2014). After outrage Nebraska official allows high school student to perform gender acceptance speech. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/skarlan/after-online-outrage-nebraska-official-allows-high-school-st
Sandoval, C. & Latorre, G. (2008). Chicana/o artivism: Judy Baca’s work with youth of color. In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Ethnicity. Ed. Anna Everett. pp. 81-108. Camridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Terkel, A. ( 2014). Nebraska high school student’s speech on gender stereotypes barred from tv showcase. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/02/nebraska-lgbt_n_5078409.htm