I started to put together a personal theory a few years ago that has since become the basis of my company, OutGrade.
In January 2011 I was sitting in my United Nations work truck, in the hills outside Damascus, Syria, eating a sandwich, bored and waiting for a local fixer to meet me. Despite my exotic office, I was still the straight Texan that I am today, wearing cowboy boots and jeans and a white T-shirt. These UN trucks got the BBC, and Dan Savage was on, talking about gay rights and homophobia and his It Gets Better project. My theory began to take shape.
The news that year, if you recall, was filled with bullied teens and suicides and politicians saying very foolish things, with bakeries that refused to put to put two women on a wedding cake and hundreds of thousands of people fighting over a fried chicken joint. Sitting in my truck I realized that there was an enormous emotional groundswell forcing LGBT rights into the media spotlight, and that Mr. Savage and Ms. Gaga and Mr. Takei were instrumental in leading this charge and steering the national dialogue in the general direction of progress and modernity. My theory took note of this.
However, it was less clear to me how I, an individual, could make an instant change today, in my local neighborhood. How could one of those bullied teens, or an adult so disrespected by a local bigot, force a change? How could millions of Americans leverage their fury and their voices and their hopes to impose progress on so many more millions unwilling to change? Was watching a YouTube video or clicking "like" or signing some impotent petition really the extent of our power as people who care about LGBT rights? My theory argued not.
My experience in Texas and at a Catholic all-boys school had taught me that those who impeded equality would not be stirred by the emotional plea being put forward. They would not change their ways in the face of a moral imperative to be a decent human being. Despite their patriotic reverence for the land of free, they would have no problem arguing that rights were not quite that universal. It became clear to me that if we wanted to make an instant, local change, we would need something more powerful than clicktivism. My theory took its final and current form, and sitting in that truck, I began to draw a website on a sandwich wrapper.
If we want to elicit this change that we all believe in, the hope for which fuels our fight for equality, we must present the homophobic and even the neutral with something that they cannot evade. It is undeniable that Savage and Gaga and the whole constellation of LGBT nonprofits have helped millions. However, the fact remains that the moral and emotional argument appeals most to those who are already supporters. We must also frame our argument in a language that appeals to the detractors. Money appeals to everyone. And so I think we must leverage the spending power of the LGBT and the allied communities in making homophobia something that is financially untenable.
My company OutGrade presents the nation with a carrot and a stick. It lets people review local businesses according to their LGBT friendliness. This community that for generations has suffered bullying and bigotry and cold neutrality is considered by many to be one of the wealthiest and best-educated groups in this country. Through the power of the Internet, we can for the first time aggregate LGBT people and allies as a single economic force and harness the emotion that fueled millions of Facebook photos changing to little red equal signs. We can force accountability on every business in the nation. We can plot a very public map of equality. We can show the country that being LGBT-friendly is good for your bottom line, and that being homophobic is a sure-fire way to hurt your cash flow.
LGBT rights are more than an LGBT issue. Furthermore, with thousands of places reviewed so far, it is clear that local businesses do not view the LGBT community as a niche market. A midmorning beer with the very Irish and very blue-collar owner of a bar in South Boston that had been rated highly on OutGrade put a final polish on this theory of mine. He articulated it thusly: "If my bar was racist towards black people, sure I would lose out on business from the 12% of the country that is black. But I would also lose business from the 95% percent of everybody else who views racism as unacceptable. You need to do the same thing with gay people."
And so that's my theory: If we can show the country's businesses that equality pays and that homophobia hurts not only their reputation but their pocketbook, we can harness this emotion and elicit change on a local and national level. As businesses change their ways for fiscal reasons, they will come to interact with LGBT people on a more frequent basis. They will soon learn what we already know: LGBT people are just like everyone else. We already have united as an emotional force; now let's unite as an economic force.