This is a momentous time for the LGBTQ community as we commemorate the 50thanniversary of Stonewall and pay tribute to the heroes and heroines of that period. At this “Stonewall moment,” it’s important that we look back at our history as well as look ahead to the future.
To think 40 years ago, I was beginning my career in state and national politics that included working for Jay Rockefeller and Jimmy Carter. Yet, it was still not a time for gay people to be public about their sexual identity in the workplace.
Fast forward to 2019, and we have made real progress, but there’s still more work ahead. On the progress side, marriage equality is now the law of the land, and public opinion around marriage has been reversed from 60 percent opposition 15 years ago to 61% support today. But, as we watch the anti-choice forces build in a number of states and we see women’s rights being infringed upon, we must be vigilant on the marriage front as well.
Further, on the progress front, we have our own openly gay presidential candidate with Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who in a short period of time has organized quite the campaign and is appealing to a broad swath of voters. And, groups like the LGBTQ Victory Fund are shattering the pink ceiling in huge ways by electing openly gay mayors in big cities like Chicago, and we have seen the rise of Speaker Corey Johnson in New York along with governorships in Colorado and Oregon.
As we look back at our history, a defining period for so many of us began in the mid-1980s with the AIDS crisis. For years, both the federal government under President Ronald Reagan, and in New York under Mayor Ed Koch, we saw elected officials allow precious years to go by before responding to the AIDS crisis, and during that time of silence, nearly 20,000 Americans died of AIDS.
Thanks to the efforts of six brave New York men, we saw how powerful symbols can become when they took the pink triangle in 1987 and married it with “Silence equals Death” to symbolize the inaction by Reagan, Koch, and others and also the push within our community to get active in fighting the crisis on many fronts—health, politics, life versus death and doing all of this with a communications lens.
Out of “Silence equals Death,” we saw the birth of ACTUP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which led to heightened protests tied to government inaction, slowness around research and price gouging by big pharma.
We should celebrate the historic and pioneering efforts of LGBTQ activists and their work in advocacy. It was a small group of individuals leading the way, igniting the movement, creating supporting organizations. That really sums up the period into the early 90s. In all of this work, there were real stars—who understood themes, how to ignite a movement and keep it going, and they knew strategy.
In the past 20-plus years, so much has grown up and matured around LGBTQ issues. Our industry sector of PR professionals has played important roles as consultants, along with small and large PR shops. I am proud of the work we first did at the firm I founded, Widmeyer Communications. There, we worked hand in hand on the Campaign for Military Service, for Whitman Walker on HIV-AIDS, and with non-profits and government around anti-bullying deploying integrated PR communications.
Today, and in the near future, our sector in PR and communications can make a huge difference in helping big companies, thought leaders, pharma, government—communicate important messages about their products and their issues that are inclusive, thoughtful and progressive.
We must be spirited, truthful and convincing to clients in giving them the best guidance possible. I encourage my colleagues to keep advocating, stay focused and alert to troubling signals in today’s society, and more than ever, I hope you will connect with younger professionals in our industry. They need us as mentors and guideposts, and they need to know they can be who they are--out and open in the workplace.
I plead with everyone to make it their responsibility to not forget our history, and to help inform millennials and Gen Zers about the struggles we have faced and the fight we fought for them. There are more fights ahead. That is for certain, but let’s do all we can to bring more awareness in our community around how we have evolved. Without appreciating our history, it’s hard to look at our future.
Scott Widmeyer is a Founding Managing Partner at Finn Partners. His firm, Widmeyer Communications, was acquired by Finn in 2013.