As Facebook turns 10, the site is gathering stories of how the social network helped connect and empower users from around the world. One of those users is James Brechney, who sparked a movement in Australia (and around the world) after uploading a picture of him showing his pride.
When the New South Wales state government removed a rainbow crosswalk commemorating the 35th anniversary of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, many in the LGBTQ community saw it as a sign of disrespect.
The night after the crosswalk had been removed, Brechney was inspired to take action of his own. He picked up some chalk, gathered his mates and created a rainbow crosswalk on his street. Of course, like many Facebook users, he took pictures (above) of their work and shared them online.
Quickly, a night of “whimsical activism” turned into a movement. Thanks to the power of social media, Brechney’s DIY Rainbow spread among friends and eventually inspired others to create their own.
Brechney talks to Out about the pride he instilled in friends and strangers and the unexpected path DIY Rainbow followed.
OUT: When you took to Facebook to share your story, were you surprised at how the community (and the world) responded?
James Brechney: Oh absolutely. When I first created our chalk rainbow behind our terrace it was meant as a one-off protest in jest. At that stage I had no plans to encourage others to make them or expect anything like the response we got. The photo took off like wildfire within the space of a few hours and that's when we knew there was a potential to make it bigger than just our laneway.
Why was Facebook the most effective platform for DIY Rainbow compared to other social media? Do you think Facebook reaches a different audience?
Yeah I think there were a few reasons it really took off on Facebook. Whilst the DIY Rainbow page has developed into more a vehicle for LGBT rights initially it was a one-issue page (the removal of Sydney's Rainbow Crossing) and it was a local issue. I'm a pretty popular guy on Facebook (if I don't say so myself) with most of my audience being people that I know from the local area. I think this gave my initial photo the best chance to succeed. I posted the photo at the same time to other networks but the response was minimal. Facebook is also still the best platform for sharing photos and the DIY Rainbow movement is a very visual campaign so I think that helped too.
DIY Rainbow has made its away around the world, raising awareness of LGBT rights. But what changes has the project sparked in your hometown, where it all began?
We've had a presence at many of the LGBT festivals and rallies here. Rainbow chalking is actually a lot of fun and it gives people something to do at a rally where you can spend a lot of time standing around.
We'll be having a DIY Rainbow Mardi Gras float in March that will of course cross over the point at Taylor Square where the original Sydney rainbow crossing was. A lot of locals are looking forward to that.
A second rainbow installation has just been opened at a suburb near the city here with, I think it's fair to say, a strong community of rainbow families, The suburb is called Summer Hill. The council has installed a permanent rainbow grid that residents can write chalk messages within the squares. It is in a public park where residents made the initial ‘Summer Hill DIY Rainbow’ when our campaign took off. It's great to see a permanent piece of artwork there that was born out of an original chalking. Through the page we've been campaigning pretty hard for marriage equality here in Australia and it's been great to be a part of a page that's attitude is a very loving one. We encourage all people to chalk it up and we avoid getting negative as much as possible.
I've also been involved with the City of Sydney brainstorming and working on 'what's next' for Oxford Street in terms of a permanent LGBT installation. Watch this space.
Since DIY Rainbow started, what's the longest rainbow you've chalked or know has been chalked? This could be a cool contest...
We've had a number of 'record breakers.’ I think the most people we've had would of been at our Sydney Chalk Off last year where we had about 300 people chalk near the Sydney Opera House at night. Although the authorities weren't too happy it was a lot of fun. It was a smaller team at our nation's capital though in Canberra that I believe can take the award for the longest rainbow that stretched quite a fair way following Lake Burley Griffin.
In the past few years, the U.S. among other countries has seen a number of LGBT issues become major media stories thanks to social media. In what ways has Facebook driven the betterment of the LGBT community in regards to winning these cases?
One of the unique things about the LGBT community is that quite often we're spread all over the place. In multicultural Australia you'll often find minorities conglomerating together geographically and whilst there are 'gay areas' - particularly in the cities - we generally have a large community really spread across the country in cities and regional areas. This is a pretty obvious thing to say because you're not 'born' into gay life like perhaps you might be Korean or Irish etc. The internet generally and then Facebook as an extension of that has been incredibly empowering allowing LGBT to connect with each other. Missing out on the geographical convenience I think was once a hindrance to our movement but now our spread is actually an advantage. Look at all these DIY rainbows that in the space of a few days were coming in from all over Australia and within the space of a few weeks from all over the globe, That's very powerful imagery. We're also a creative lot and I think tools like Facebook can definitely channel that creativity for really great causes and it has.
When celebrities openly support LGBT issues, what kind of reaction does the Facebook community have?
Our DIY Rainbow community just loves it when celebrities, corporations and other players get in and send us a message of support or even chalk a rainbow themselves. Although our movement has been really organic, everyone understands the power and influence that others can have with their own fan bases. We've tried pretty hard over here to get noticed by George Takei and also Ellen but without much luck at this stage. Our fingers are still crossed though!
Do small communities of LGBT individuals pop up on Facebook? Have you seen Group pages that help connect members of the community?
I wouldn't call myself an expert on all that is gay Facebook, really DIY was really organic and I was a radio host and BBQ salesman before I became this very recent activist. I imagine that a lot of Facebook pages and groups are the same: people connecting with other people and building a community. We've had a few areas like Newcastle and Summer Hill create their own spin off pages from DIY Rainbow that focus more on just there area, and that's great.
It's great when social media offers an outlet for positive support, but sometimes it can also be negative. How do you negotiate those different responses?
We've been extremely fortunate with DIY Rainbow that it's developed into a real family friendly campaign that there's really no space for homophobic or negativity. I don't know if it's a trend happening across Facebook because people are using their real names or if someone needs to do a study on our page but we are remarkably getting little to no cruel comments. I think we got a couple when we briefly had gay marriage here for 5 days and we posted numerous wedding photos. I don't believe in censorship so we left them up but I suppose I have been lucky because I really haven't had to deal with the kinds of stuff I know some other forums have to.