Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Project aims to change Americans' opinions about LGBTs


Julie Davis, executive director of Face Value, is working to change opinions about LGBTs. (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
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Armed with a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation, the Face Value project is on a mission to change the way Americans think and feel about LGBT people.

The grant, said Julie R. Davis, executive director of the project, "really demonstrates a real forward thinking approach on the part of the Ford [Foundation]."

The San Francisco-based Face Value, a project of the Tides Foundation, received the $730,000 grant last October. It was one of six awardees of the two-year grants designed to examine children and sexuality.

"This is a major undertaking for Face Value to both support political work and cultural attitudes toward queer people," said Amanda Decetise, a nonprofit consultant who worked with Davis and the advisory committee to craft the proposal. "It's a beautiful thing and particularly around the fact that it's about children. It's very timely given the bullying that's been going on over the last several months."

Face Value will examine the "harms children" argument that anti-gay opponents have successfully used in political and social campaigns for the past 30 years, said Davis.

Face Value is affiliated with Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The project plans to get to the heart of anti-gay attacks using interdisciplinary in-depth research to produce revamped educational materials and messages to aid organizations with eradicating homophobia.

For the first time ever a consortium of leading academics, researchers, communications strategists, and select community-based organizations convened in April at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston to launch the project.

The Ford Foundation grant is really looking at how we move beyond this "harms children trigger," said Davis. The foundation, which has a long history of funding groundbreaking sexuality research, really got the connection between sexuality, children, and LGBT individuals and the need to shift public perception in a revolutionary way, noted Davis.

"We know [due to] over 30 years experience that the issue of children is a winner for our opposition," that when children enter the conversation "people will instantly go to this place of anxiety and fear and completely shift how they are reacting to an issue or to actual people they know in their lives that are gay and lesbian," said Davis.

The Ford Foundation sees "tremendous potential for this project to help break down stereotypes and contribute new knowledge based on rigorous research to public dialogue and understanding about sexuality," wrote Rocio L. Cordoba, program officer for sexuality and reproductive health and rights at the foundation, in an email.

"Our work in this area is motivated by a belief that deeper understanding of human sexuality is essential to healthy social relationships and strengthens our ability to promote the right of all people to sexual health and well being," Cordoba added.

Re-visioning the future

The mission of Face Value is to "figure out how we can move the culture, to move the attitudes about us as people so that our lived experiences change," said Davis, knowing it's an impossible goal for LGBT individuals to have a personal impact on more than 308 million Americans.

Davis wants to find the "underlying" barriers, attitudes, and beliefs that make people "incredibly uncomfortable" about the normalization of queer people and find the trigger points to "actually tip those feelings," she said. It's her goal to create, enhance, and reshape "positive associations with LGBT people" to use with new communication models that work as effectively as a "personal connection," that will speak to a diverse range of individuals and communities.

Born out of 2008's Proposition 8 battle, Face Value is Davis's hope for the future of LGBT individuals. Davis, then the northern California manager for the No on 8 campaign, and her colleague, Anne C. Marks, came to a revelation during the fight to save same-sex marriage in California. Prop 8 was passed by voters and amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. That law is now being challenged in federal court.

After years of activism and making key observations during the Prop 8 battle, Davis said, "I really came to understand that we've reached this threshold."

Davis was the founder of Basic Rights Oregon and the campaign organizer behind that state's successful No on 13 campaign in 1994 to defeat a proposed law prohibiting laws protecting gays.

"We've reached this feeling of what we could accomplish in terms of shifting public attitudes by simply changing laws and policies," said Davis. That feeling compelled her to "take a step back" and take another look at the state of the LGBT movement. While she values the "incredible" legal and legislative advancements in LGBT rights, Davis believes that "laws alone will not help us achieve the cultural transformation that we need," she said.

Marks added that working on the ground outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco's queer centers she learned that simply living life remained a challenge for many queer individuals, no matter what rights were gained, including marriage equality.

"It became clear to me that we as a community [view] marriage as very important, but it's not the most important thing equality-wise for most queer people," said Marks, who recalled the uptick in anti-gay violence during the campaign. Living life and being safe, which isn't "available to many folks," was much more important, she said.

Marks continues her work at Face Value as an advisory board member and is now executive director of Youth Alive, a youth anti-violence and leadership development organization.

People continue to live in fear of coming out, violence against them on the streets for being queer, and more, Davis agreed, saying, "tolerance is not enough."

It is time to begin "changing attitudes of us as people, not changing attitudes about laws or protections that we might need," Davis said, pointing out that the No on 8 campaign clarified for her how sophisticated people were about LGBT individuals' legal rights.

"They could distinguish between what domestic partnerships were and what civil union is and argue themselves' out of why it was okay for them not to support marriage because they supported these other two things," Davis said.

Davis and Marks, both out, veteran activists, began to plant the seed of Face Value.

The women raised an initial $100,000 from individual donors to aid the first two years of work that involved combining a variety of perspectives and experimentation of findings. The women interviewed more than 30 stakeholders, worked with initial cognitive linguistic experts, convened national opinion researchers with more than 20 years experience working on LGBT issues, and acquired new sources of funding beyond the usual LGBT funding pool.

Their goal was to get to the heart of "changing attitudes and beliefs about LGBT individuals;" to identify key elements of the opposition's language patterns in anti-LGBT messages; to gain knowledge from their perspective and experience; and to leverage the donations to acquire mainstream funding.

Their mission was accomplished with the Ford Foundation grant.

Changing face

The next phase of the project was launched this spring with a think tank session that tackled deep-seated issues about children, sexuality, and public opinions about children's contact with LGBT individuals. It was the first of many discussions that will take place over the next two years.

Harvard hosted the meeting a week after a controversial conference Social Transformation, dubbed the "Hate Conference" by Truth Wins Out, an organization that defends the LGBT community "against anti-gay misinformation campaigns. TWO spoke out against Social Transformation, spearheaded by a group that called itself the Seven Mountains program, by mobilizing constituents and placing an ad in the Harvard Crimson , according to a TWO news release.

Similar to TWO's work to "turn information into action by organizing, advocating and fighting for LGBT equality," according to its website, Cordoba and Davis hope that Face Value's work will yield important insights that will be a new antidote to anti-LGBT groups' "punch," in the form of educational tools organizations could use to "actually shift the public discourse," said Davis.

Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, one of Face Value's 15 partner organizations, is excited about the project's work. Laub spoke at a recent convening about her nearly 15 years experience with GSA Network's ongoing battles over LGBT inclusion in schools and queer student safety issues. She believes the end results of Face Value's work with the Ford Foundation will aid organizations like GSA Network with its short and long term educational campaigns toward "cultural change," she said.

The Ford Foundation grant to Face Value not only "legitimizes," but puts the LGBT movement's work on the level of other social justice allies in a "broader attempt to make the United States a more humane and equitable" society, said Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Ph.D., founding advisory board member of Face Value and Harvard Kennedy School faculty member.

"The Ford Foundation money was a game changer, not only for [Face Value], but for the movement," he said.

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