by Jarrah Hodge
The first time I visited nohomophobes.com it was an emotional experience. The site acts as a “social mirror”, capturing real-time use of homophobic slurs on Twitter, and it quickly becomes clear just how staggering a problem casual homophobia is.
I spoke to Dr. Kristopher Wells, Associate Director of the University of Alberta Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, which started the project earlier this year, about how this relatively simple Canadian idea has had such a wide impact.
Wells told me that the idea for No Homophobes came out of research on casual homophobia and how it manifests in our public education system. EGALE Canada’s national national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools, for example, found that 70% of LGBTQ youth hear phrases like “That’s so gay” every day in their schools. 10% of the time the phrases are actually coming from teachers.
“Sadly, for many LGBTQ youth this kind of casual homophobia is part of their daily reality,” said Wells.
The challenge was to put something together to bring public awareness to the issue of casual homophobia – not just in schools, but also in our society as a whole. The idea was to create a website that compiles tweets, using our four key words (“faggot”, “so gay”, “no homo”, and “dyke”), in real time, from all over English-speaking world. Wells and the iSMSS turned to their community partners, getting help from Calder Bateman in Edmonton and Burnkit in Vancouver to set up the website graphics and technical aspects.
Wells explained: “We wanted to do something different that was actually going to target and speak not only to youth, but also to the broader community – and we figured out pretty quickly that we needed to do something with social media, which is where most youth seem to live.”
Once the site was set up, the team started to see the scope of the problem very quickly. As Wells said,
“I was simply quite shocked by the staggering number of tweets we began to see, and also by the results which showed how the word ‘faggot’ was far and away one of the most tweeted derogatory words.”
It also became clear that the interest in the project went far beyond the University of Alberta community. Media requests poured in from around the world, including from the Economist, the Guardian, and Radio Netherlands. Groups like Stonewall UK and the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC contacted the project to learn more about how they can use social media more effectively to get their own messages out.
“The overwhelming global response told us that we really managed to tap into a global consciousness and raise awareness in a brand new way and perhaps for the first time quantify what’s going on,” Wells said.
In terms of individual feedback, Wells told me: “People have reported being fascinated and horrified at the same time when they visited the website.” He said the use of these words on the website and in the campaign’s transit and bathroom ads is shocking meant to be thought-provoking, to focus the public’s attention and create public conversation.
He said some people are supportive of the No Homophobes project goal but object to using the derogatory terms in public, but he argued: “We’re outing the words. We’re putting them out there for the public to talk about and to see…We believe there is no other credible way to talk about the impact of casual homophobia than to actually name and use the words.”
Going forward Wells thinks there may be opportunities to start to evaluate the data the project sees in more detail:
“Given all the public interest, our next step is to think about ways in which we can do research to deepen our analysis and examine ways in which homophobia manifests itself online. We know what we’ve captured is so powerful that we’re looking at ways we can do more with it, potentially with new research partners to help us make sense of all the data and trends we are seeing.”
But in the end, Wells mainly hopes the project will continue to spark discussion and fight casual homophobia: “Ultimately, we hope the nohomophobes.com website will inspire public dialogue and education and prompt groups to think about new and innovate ways to use social media for social good.”
In the next couple of weeks they’ll be launching a new PSA in partnership with Global TV and once that’s available online I’ll be sure to share it on the blog. In the meantime, if you want to support the project Wells recommends speaking out when you hear people using homophobic or transphobic language. You can also use the #NoHomophobes hashtag on Twitter.