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Continuing the Fight for LGBT Equality: A Conversation with Anastasia Khoo

May 11, 2016   |   Annie Neimand

In 2015 we saw enormous progress in the fight for LGBT rights with the Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality and the introduction of the Equality Act in Congress. As we’ve moved into 2016, we’ve seen a backlash against human rights in the South with the introduction of bills that allow for discrimination against LGBT people on the basis of religious freedom and privacy rights.

The introduction of bills like HB 2 (better known as the bathroom bill) and HB 1523 (better known as the religious freedom bill that would allow businesses to deny services to LGBT people based on religious beliefs) in states across the south have led to court battles and boycotts. For example, following the passage of HB 2 in North Carolina, musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Demi Lovato have canceled shows in solidarity with the LGBT community. Businesses like Bank of America, Uber, Facebook, Airbnb and more have all pledged to take their business out of North Carolina.

The U.S. Justice Department is now suing North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory and the University of North Carolina for violating the U.S. Civil Rights Act, arguing the bill is in violation of Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination at public schools, Title VII, which protects public employees from discrimination and the Violence Against Women Act.

In a press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said “This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry.” She went on to say “It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward.”

In response, the North Carolina Governor has filed his own lawsuit against the DOJ claiming they are in breach of federal overreach.

Clearly the fight for human rights is not over.

As a big player in the movement for LGBT equality, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is using all the tools they have to stop these discriminatory bills. From organizing celebrities and business leaders, to leading marches in the street, HRC is on the frontline of this fight. I talked with Anastasia Khoo, chief marketing officer for HRC and the brain behind many of their well known and successful social media campaigns about the fight and what HRC is doing to win.

Can you tell us what you are currently working on?

I am working on building the public engagement strategy around many of the anti-LGBT bills in the states across the country. This year we have been monitoring nearly 200 anti-LGBT bills in 36 states. So, it has been a very busy couple of months for us, not only monitoring those bills, but actively mobilizing our members and supporters to stop those bills.

What sort of things are you doing to reach those goals?

As an organization we’ve applied our field strategy which is mobilizing everyday citizens to stand up, whether it is a rally or a march to the state capital from the Governor’s mansion in Mississippi, having people sign action alerts, mobilizing business leaders of major companies across the country to stand up against the bill, asking celebrities to speak out, or organizing on social media. We are using everything in our toolbox to ensure that many of the bills are defeated. And we’ve been successful. With many state legislatures now adjourned for the year, we are down to around 30 bills now, which is a huge margin given this is the year we have seen an unprecedented number of anti-LGBT bills introduced.

Can you tell me a more about your campaign tactics to work with business leaders and celebrities?

There is a whole range of things that go into a campaign. We can’t discount the power influencers have. People are attuned, whether they follow them on social or see a news article about one of their favorite celebrities. It occupies a really powerful place in this country’s consciousness. It is a strategy that has worked for us in the past. We saw a lot of success around that in the marriage equality campaign. We have been fortunate that so many individuals have continued to speak out on this issue.

On the business front, what has been really exciting is the business community has really rallied behind this, not only because it is the right thing to do, but it also just makes really good business sense. It fits with the policy and practices that the businesses have in their own companies and it speaks to attracting and attaining the talent when you have inclusive policies.

I think that those two pillars have been really powerful for us in this fight and certainly in issues that we have waged in the past.

In your mind why are we seeing an increase in these anti-LGBT bills?

We have experienced unprecedented success and very quickly as a movement. I think back to when I first started at the Human Rights Campaign 10 years ago and it was a very different cultural and political landscape on our issues. We’ve seen rapid progress, especially with the Supreme Court ruling last year that granted marriage equality nationwide, it really was an incredible achievement. I do think the increase we have seen in anti-LGBT bills in the state legislatures is a direct result of that progress. In so many ways I think that it is just a backlash to the success that we have had as a movement and the visibility.

The anti-LGBT bills that we are seeing in North Carolina and Mississippi are really about the fundamentals around discrimination. One of the keys to our success as a movement has been LGBT coming out. Coming out for transgender people is much more risky, there is fear of losing their jobs and housing, there’s still no federal bill that protects LGBT people, particularly trans people who are among some of the most vulnerable in the community. We have worked so hard as an organization and a movement to empower people to come out and speak their truth, not only to their friends and family, but to their coworkers and neighbors.

What  do you see the role of coming out is in your work and the movement?

Visibility has been so key to our success. I think that’s where we saw, in marriage equality, real rapid increase of acceptance around the issue. It was no longer someone you saw on television, it was someone you knew, and more often than not someone that you really loved.  Then you understood that they just wanted the same things that you had in terms of having a family and to be able to be married to the person you loved.

Really, we are working to raise awareness of the challenges transgender people face in this country, and I think a lot of progress has been made, particularly around people coming out and knowing more trans people. But, we still have a long way to go.

What are your next challenges?

We are certainly in big fights in North Carolina and Mississippi to repeal these laws. While we have defeated a lot of other bills, it is still going to be an intense couple of months to achieve victory. Beyond that, we are really focused on a federal bill called The Equality Act that would  prevent discrimination on a host of issues. Achieving that would mean we are no longer fighting these state by state battles around discrimination. That is the long game.

In the meantime, we are continuing to use the tactics that have worked for us, including visibility, mobilizing our members and supporters, reaching out to business leaders and influencers to continue to pressure these governors and senate and house leaders in these states to do the right thing and repeal these bills.

Do you use research in your work?

Certainly, that is an important component. In everything we do, we use message testing  to make sure we are using the right message. It is expensive, but I certainly think that the work that not just we’ve done, but others in the movement have done, has really helped to inform how to talk about things. I wish we had the time and money to be doing more, because I do believe in the value of it.

We do message testing, we do a lot of polls, and from time to time we will do focus groups. It depends on the campaign and the case and what we are working on, but we have employed all different methods around many of our issues.

What role can the field of public interest communications play in the LGBT fight and movement?

Many people assumed that because we had such an incredible victory around marriage equality that it was done and that people could move on to other issues. But what we have seen is that is not the case. Just because the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality doesn’t mean that we have outlawed homophobia and transphobia. So I think our challenge is to galvanize people to help them understand that discrimination still exists and that our work isn’t done. Continuing the drumbeat on our issues will continue as these bills play out in these states.

What is the role of strategic communications in achieving those goals?

Strategic communications is often on the front lines. At the Human Rights Campaign we are all about the rapid response mechanism that we have built here over the years and continuing to implement the best practices that we have learned in order to win. I would say that we are both the strategist and also the implementers which at times can be a really hard thing to do. In that respect, I often think of our team as being on the front lines of our fights.

What are some of the best practices you have learned?

Our success has really been built on – from my perspective in the marketing department – a strategy of response. Our audience attune themselves to us having a point of view on all these issues. Even though we are a multi-issue advocacy organization, I think we have inserted ourselves into the dialogue that has been happening around the country and around the world. We are constantly looking for ways to insert our point of view into whatever is happening, and i think that has been really successful for us.

Second, we really believe that digital and social is not an afterthought, it really is at the forefront of our work.  We have seen a lot of success in this approach. We have been able to utilize that to not only raise awareness, but achieve social change. What we often say is that we are not just in the business of marketing our issues, but we are really in the business of changing hearts and minds.

HRC is known for using social media unlike any other organization, through your use of Facebook icons and buy now buttons on Twitter. How are you using social media now in addressing the new anti-LGBT bills?

We are still continuing to use it to help elevate the issue and beat the drum on these issues. We are using it in very targeted ways and are using it in a way to bring the fight directly to people.

For example, over the weekend in Mississippi we implemented  a lot of the Facebook live features, so you can be at a rally. We are bringing it to you. We have also done that in the past on Periscope.  We are also very active on Snapchat. We were one of the first organizations to have a partnership with Snapchat and we are seeing incredible engagement. We are just snapping everywhere we go. These battles certainly lend themselves to these on the ground perspectives.

What should we look forward to seeing from HRC in the future?

We have a very full plate ahead of us. We have all of these bills that are still in play. We have the one year anniversary of marriage equality which we are really looking forward to celebrating. The one year anniversary of the introduction of the Equality Act in Congress and looking to build visibility around that moment. And certainly the presidential elections. We have seen the power of having a pro-equality president in office, and we look forward to electing the next president to help continue the policies and the progress we have seen under the Obama administration. We have a really big agenda and full plate ahead of us for 2016.

Watch Anastasia’s frank2015 talk on the art of going viral

Annie Neimand
Annie Neimand is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology, Criminology & Law at the University of Florida, and Research Director and Executive Editor for frank.