Changing Your Profile Pic Is Not Activism

 Dear Gays,

A few days ago, I was sitting next to my boyfriend playing with his beautiful hair, thinking about the future, and looking at facebook when I noticed a few of my friends were changing their profile pics to pink equal signs that look like this:


I didn’t really know what it was, but assumed it had something to do with the upcoming Supreme Court cases about gay marriage.

Cut to this morning when, slowly, my entire facebook feed turned pink and red, a collage of people changing their profile pics in support of gay marriage. This changing wave of photos led me through a tumultuous emotional roller coaster that occured in the following stages:

1. What is everyone doing? I don’t get it? What are those pics!?! Does not knowing what these are make me old? Or would knowing what they are make me old?

2. Wait everyone is doing it. Should I do it?

3. Wait, if I do it now am I just doing it because everyone else did it?

4. Is it wrong to not want to do something just because everyone else is doing it?

5. Is it wrong to do something because you’re worried about being a bad person for not doing something just because everyone else is doing it?

6. Wait, the fact that everyone has the same profile pic is starting to make my facebook wall look really beautiful. Should I change my pic just to improve the aesthetics of facebook? It’s kind of like a collective art installation…

7. OhMyGod that gross white trash girl who used to call me gay names in high school changed her profile pic. What is going on with the world?

8. Ok, now I just can’t do it because it’s too late and I’ll look like a straggler.

9. Is it wrong not to do something just because you don’t want to look like a straggler?

10. Fine. I’ll do it. But only if I can somehow figure out how to make an equal sign out of Anjelina Jolie’s exposed Oscar leg.

At that point I changed my pic to this Photoshop masterpiece:


Like any other rational human being, I am obsessed with that one time Anjelina Jolie Captain Morgan’d her leg all over the Oscars. It was the turning point at which I realized I no longer understood American pop culture at all.

I’m pretty sure changing our profile pictures is going to have zero impact on the Supreme Court rulings, which is why I didn’t jump on the bandwagon right away. This isn’t an issue of public opinion, so I’m not really quite sure what function changing our profile pictures is supposed to serve. I guess it serves some sort of emotional purpose. Like we all feel the need to do something. But does protest, even real, meaningful protest that involves more than changing your profile picture, even have a place here? Isn’t this about the justices interpreting the Constitution and figuring out whether it allows discrimination against gays? And deliberating. In a room? By themselves? Alone? Whilst not staring at my Facebook pics?

I’m not going to be one of those crabapples who sits to the side and grumbles about what everyone else is doing. I certainly have no problem with all my friends changing their profile pics, but there is a certain sense of safety in it that seems to negate the point of the whole thing. I can sit here from my West Hollywood (adjacent) apartment and safely update my profile picture so that everyone in my (highly edited) group of (entirely gay friendly) “friends” can see that I support gay marriage (duh).

Brian Moylan wrote a semi-scathing criticism of this Facebook profile pic conformity which I totally agreed with. His issue with it was that changing your profile pic is probably the laziest form of activism in the history of time. But our generation has a relatively lazy approach to activism. Mainly because we’ve never had any huge issues to get riled up about.

A long, long time ago, before Facebook and Grindr, gay people had to be, like, actual activists because they were all dying and no one knew what the fuck was going on. I was reminded of this when I recently watched How To Survive A Plague, a totally enthralling documentary about Act Up’s activism in the 80s, demanding that the government stop ignoring the AIDS epidemic. Those people were brave. They were emotional. They were out on the streets. And they were fighting for gay rights when being gay was frowned upon by the general public, when gays were pushed to the side, maligned, and swept under the rug. They were truly doing something brave. Modern gays owe them everything.

Flash forward to the only sliver of activism the Millenial generation has had the chance to feast on: the fight over the passage of Prop 8 in 2008. Our generation has been criticized for being apathetic and entitled and for the most part we have been. But that’s because we’ve never really faced a huge opposition (i.e. intense oppression in the 50s or AIDS in the 80s). But when Prop 8 was added to the ballot we were reminded that we were second class citizens, reminded that we still had a reason to unite and fight for something.

Prop 8 gave us the chance to stand in the street holding signs, to march in enormous groups and chant, to increase visibility. The rallies I attended in Los Angeles in protest of Prop 8 were exciting. It made us all feel like we were Harvey Milk-era activists.


Above art by Evan Ross Katz

And now back to the Supreme Court cases about gay marriage. Changing your Facebook profile picture isn’t activism. It certainly shows solidarity and support for the right to marry, but it’s not activism. And in this case that’s totally fine. At this point activism serves an emotional purpose, but perhaps not a logical one. We aren’t going to change the Supreme Court’s opinion on gay marriage. They have to figure out some sort of legal way to rationalize whatever decision they come to. While it made sense to protest Prop 8 because people were going to polls to vote on it, protesting a court decision before it even happens doesn’t make sense.


That being said, I think changing your profile picture to show support for marriage equality is great for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s therepeutic and makes us feel like we’re doing something, somehow making us feel less powerless. My sister and her (female) fiance are waiting for this ruling with baited breath, being that their wedding is already scheduled for September. They have an especially vested interest in the outcome of these cases. And I know they felt a certain comfort in changing their profile picture and seeing how many other people follow suit.


The most heartening moments of this profile pic changing party has been seeing how many straight people showed up to support the gay people in their lives. My mom changed her profile pic, maybe yours did too. Seeing this felt good. Which I guess is the whole point of everyone changing their profile pics. Maybe it wont sway the justices, but it definitely gave people the sense that they were supported and loved. So yes, I do think it’s relatively useless as advocacy, but it serves as emotional enrichment for our community, a way for us to show we support one another. And I think there is inherent value in that.


45 thoughts on “Changing Your Profile Pic Is Not Activism

  1. You are obviously not following the stories coming out of Orlando’s LGBT Center Fan Page. We launched a massive media campaign, updated thousands of profile photos which has triggered a massive awareness campaign in straight communities that were unaware of the details of what is going on. Likewise, we launched a “Paint the Town Red” campaign which has taken over social media leading to stories such as this one from the creator – “A mother contacted me to let me know that her son came out to her after she updated her Facebook cover photo using the ‘Paint the Red’ Campaign skyline photo. She never realized her own son has been struggling to find a way to come out to her, but he knew she would support him once he saw her Facebook cover photo go RED.”

  2. This morning, noticing It was ‘World Theatre Day’ I focused my energies on being the first independent theatre company in Sydney to post a aesthetically pleasing graphic about it. Turns out, we were and while we were also eclipsed by another theatre organisation posting a picture of Rafiki holding the equals sign, I felt the time I would have spent debating wether or not to change my profile picture was better spent anyway. The post ended up being the highest viewed post this week.
    Also, I just changed my profile picture after 2 years like, yesterday. I don’t do these things lightly.
    Unrelated, I just watched the episode of Six Feet Under where David is held at gunpoint, for the first time. Utterly destroyed me. Thought it was worth mentioning.
    Witty pop culture reference, meanwhile. Leg bomb. Props to you sir.
    Happy World Theatre Day.

  3. Straight girl here…I loved reading your thoughts thinking throught it. Those are my feelings exactly. I represent more than just myself on facebook (my job, my volunteer organizations, my family, etc.) and I try to avoid posting anything political or controversial on facebook. It risks hurting people, and in the end, what does it really accomplish? On the flip, I don’t want to hurt my gay friends by not posting. So I just stay out of it. Maybe I’m a coward.

  4. Orlando,
    I see it more as a visibility thing. The world is a walk in closet. Now people cannot say, ” don’t know any gays or anyone who does.” It is subtle, but I also feel it is very powerful.

  5. I agree – it’s not activism and I didn’t think of it as that when I changed my pic. Normally, I don’t change my profile because I *adore* the one I usual use. I just thought it was NEAT to have The Facebook awash in the red lines that are supposed to symbolize equality. It doesn’t hurt that the people who are my “friends” on facebook that wouldn’t support marriage equality now know where I stand without me actually having to have a conversation with them, which I would abhor. Love your blog, dude.

  6. I agree that, when viewed myopically, the changing of one’s profile picture does seem pretty meaningless. However, the aggregate effect of the campaign is a useful form of activism, regardless of its simplicity.

    A major (primary?) historical roadblock to gay equality has been silence, be it the closet for LGBT folks or the passive oppression embraced by our straight friends, family and neighbors. In recent years, more and more people are ending their silence on LGBT equality and our community is reaping tangible benefits–see, for instance, marriage equality in Maine, Washington and Maryland. One reason for this growing chorus is that we have reached a critical mass of support that has mainstreamed a view that just 10 years ago was viewed as radical. However, although our cause has entered the mainstream and finds support from Barack to Beyonce, we still face significant roadblocks in achieving equality under the law for all LGBT Americans in all corners of the country.

    Which brings me back to the profile pictures. My Facebook newsfeed is populated by people from all over the country and the world, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, who are reflecting their support for LGBT equality via the HRC pink equality sign. Many have never made statements supporting equality. And many more have friends who have yet to have the courage to make a statement themselves. Maybe after this widespread demonstration, they will.

    Activism is about change, large and small. In manufacturing a visual campaign to reflect the spreading support for LGBT equality under the law, the HRC has engaged in an effective measure that will certainly add to the number of people who are vocally supportive of our equality. And through that increase in vocal support, we will eventually reap our just reward.

    The required action may not be difficult. And it certainly is not radical. But, yes, it definitely is activism.

    1. Brian Jenks, thank you for your reply, you summed up most of my own feelings on the subject fantastically. I appreciate your time and your sentiments! I would like to add a few of my own, please:

      By offering a simple visual cue, many people can tell at a glance that there is a great deal of support for this cause. Culture is shaped in a big way by the statements that people make publicly. In much the same way that anti-smoking campaigns & bans have led to a large decrease in the number of young people smoking…young people have grown up in an environment where certain actions, like smoking, have (to them) always been considered taboo or socially undesirable. By adding our voices of support (even through something as simple as a red-colored image) we are sending a message loud and clear that bigotry and inequality are socially unacceptable. As a result, children do not grow up only hearing hateful messages, and the adults that are currently prejudiced are going to be less likely to spout messages of hate in public.

      I appreciate that many people, like the author of the article, have Facebook friends lists that are filled with people that think similarly…but that’s often not the case. Not all of us live in “progressive” urban environments, or are able to surround ourselves with only people that are aware of, or support, our beliefs about marriage equality. For some, making a public statement of support, even through the simple act of changing a profile picture, can be an act that is socially risky. The risk range from facing hostility, alienation, and discrimination from family, friends, faith groups, or business associates. For businesses, a statement of support may literally cost them money.

      I am thrilled that there are places in the U.S. where people don’t face, or aren’t afraid of the repercussions for publicly stating support for such a controversial subject, but please don’t cheapen the real courage, and yes, activism, that it took for many people to “just” change their profile pictures.

  7. You’re taking this way too seriously. I’m a straight girl who has many gay friends and grew up with many friends with gay parents. I don’t think that the picture is activism. It’s simply something I support as something that will make our society better. For me, it’s the equivalent to wearing a breast cancer ribbon, a sticker to support a political candidate, or a support the troops bumper sticker. Not activism. Just a message you want to send.

  8. I think this blog was well written, Orlando. Great job!

    However, I have one comment:

    Harvey Milk/grass-roots activism is a double edged sword. You mentioned that you saw “How To Survive a Plague” and how activists did their best to attract government attention during the AIDS pandemic. Remember that the gay community “activists” did not cooperate with public health agencies during the initial pandemic. Their refusal to close the bathhouses (which CDC Epidemiologists identified as the major places where HIV was transmitted) came from the gay community and politicians that did not want to face the repercussions of such a bold move. By the same token, the lack of true activism and awareness in New York compared to San Francisco let the virus spread uncontrollably in NYC compared to the few interventions SF had. Visibility was the major hurtle for activists to get their point across and for scientists to get funding to investigate the problem. CDC asked for funding to look into HIV in 1980 (1981?) before the pandemic really took off and got their budgets cut since there was no awareness for the disease.

    I find a lot of value in putting the information out there via Facebook since not discussing it, even at the bare minimum level, is detrimental to the cause, be it AIDS or gay marriage. We have to start somewhere, and if Facebook pictures is where we start the dialogue then so be it.

    “And the Band Played On” is another book to read for folks to see the the politics of the AIDS pandemic. It’s a really good read if you have time to learn something important.

  9. Exactly! Not activism, but I think it’s a way to be out as a supporter of marriage equality, and support the people we love who are currently being treated unfairly. Also, frankly, I’d like those who are NOT in favor of it to have a visual for how outnumbered they are. Maybe they’ll start to wonder? Maybe not, but it can’t hurt. I know it was a balm to my soul when I saw men posting their outrage at CNNs lament over how the Steubenville football players “lives were ruined”. I was so pissed about that, couldn’t bear to even talk about it, but it truly did make me feel better to know that I’ve got male friends who get it.

  10. Not everyone marched on Selma. Not everyone was able to be in Washington DC when Dr. King spoke. People do what they can – and that’s okay. Stop bringing negative energy into something where it doesn’t need to exist. I have straight friends who are supporting me this way – who I never expected to. That alone is strength and support. Celebrate it. Don’t bring it down.

  11. It DOES allow us to show our support (whether that’s activism or not) and it does open dialog. Several of my friends have been “unfriended” on facebook because they went red. That, right there, means that more conversation needs to happen. And, when asked, I was able to use it explain it to someone who didn’t understand what was going on. Maybe one person’s knowledge was increased…

    As a friend said, “I’m straight, but I’m not narrow.”

  12. I chose to do it to show solidarity to what I believe is a just cause…With that said, if many people see it, they might question its relevance and hopefully start meaningful dialog…My parents marched for civil rights, I feel it’s my duty to keep such things going….

  13. I didn’t even think about it, I just did it because I love my son. I am 54 and for me, it is just a show of love and support. Don’t overthink it.

  14. It’s pretentious wrist-banding. Nothing more, nothing less. Most people are doing it because it makes them feel like a better person, despite having absolutely zero impact or meaningful support to begin with.

    Awareness? It’s 2013, there is not a soul alive in modern America who is not aware of the equal marriage issue.

    1. Raikel, maybe you should actually go talk to some people in your community, I think you’ve been spending too much time on the internet and are feeling way more cynical than can possibly be healthy for a person. The beautiful thing about acts of kindness is that the feelings associated with both the doing AND the receiving trigger all kinds of nice physiological as well as psychological changes in humans. In fact, performing them literally reinforces the behavior by the chemical reward we get. So, even if there are many that are *only* changing icons because it makes *them* feel better, you cannot negate the positive impact those good feelings have for both the person sending and receiving that message. Quite literally, random acts of kindness throw ripples of good into the world…and that alone is considerably more than the “wrist-banding” you try to devalue the act to. As much as we try to play up our individualism in America, the fact is that we are social organisms, and sometimes the “binding of the tribe” can have wide-reaching social effects.

      As to whether or not people know there’s an “issue” with equal marriage…you’re right in that lots of adults have heard by now that the SCOTUS is hearing cases this week…the point isn’t whether they know it’s happening, but that they know WHY it’s happening. Putting a very real face on not only the minority group in question (this time LGBT) but also on those of the majority that support their fight to be treated equally. I have personally seen conversations that would have never otherwise taken place because someone that society didn’t expect to changed their profile picture. It’s a way to get people talking, and to humanize an issue that some people may not even know they should care about.

      There is god’s plenty to be cynical about in this world without belittling an act that I think it’s safe to say most people have done from a place of kindness and empathy for others.

  15. Get real Orlando, it is simply people on mass showing their support for the cause, it is not activism. I know it is not activism it is about visibility and as one of the previous posts says, by turning Facebook a little pink and full of Equal signs for a while we are making a point about our visibility. So grow up and stop taking yourself so seriously. Some of us have been activists for a long time, and we don’t need telling what activism is.

  16. I think it’s unfair to brand this as lazy activism. The whole point of it is to get people talking. The first time I saw it on Facebook, I also had no clue what was going on. It forced me to investigate, which led me to the cause.

    In the process, I had discussions with friends and co-workers about the phenomenon and gay marriage, so it served as a great tool for communicating and exchanging ideas about the issue.

    One of the judiciary’s considerations should always be public policy, which is often influenced by public opinion. So if this serves to increase the dialogue and put a big enough spotlight to get the masses to stand up and notice, then this can only be a good thing.

    And as you say, at the very least the sentiment is loving and that should always been encouraged.

  17. Showing your support IS activism. It is also a great way to open up the conversation with people about equality and gay rights. Have enough pride to stand for what you believe in.

  18. doing something to support what you agree with must be better than doing nothing at all don’t you think?

  19. And folks under 35 make sweeping generalizations based on superficial observations of older peole about whom they know nothing . They seem to dismiss, ignore or are ignorant of the fact that that those very same people now over 35 concieved, developed.and established the very internet whose power Richard Cox declares they do not understand. Seems people of ALL ages have difficulty understanding anything outside their immediate sphere of experience.

  20. You said exactly what I was thinking only way more eloquently and much more better-er…. anyhoo thanks, I am going to share this with anyone who will listen to me.

  21. Orlando: First, I love you and your blog.

    Second, interesting post. But, I do honestly think that justices are far more susceptible to public opinion than they pretend to be (or can ever admit to be). Or at least this is what they teach us in over-priced, under-styled law school.

    Not that I think the facebook thing will be the game changer, but the Court is often trying to keep up with society. Even if the legal basis for doing something seems to exist (like the Constitution seems to protect gay rights, no?), the Court does not like to get out in front of public opinion. If the Court feels like society is ready for it, then they are more likely to do it. Changing facebook pics is probably not enough, but real activism, and real protests, and enough open support for gay rights can eventually persuade even the conservatives on the Court. The justices will likely never admit this is their true motivator, but they are people too.

    For example, Plessy v. Ferguson said “Separate but equal” was Constitutional in the 1800s. Then no major laws changed, but society got less racist, and the Court ruled in Brown v. Board that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal in 1954. The members on the Court changed, but the laws did not really. The big difference was changing public opinion.

    That’s all I wanted to say – the Court does care what the people think. Scalia might not, but the Court as a whole does.

  22. What gives you t he right to call someone a “white trash girl in college” ? Aren’t you just as guilty of discrimination and bullying using terms like that?

  23. Wow. A little touchy from some of the responses who didn’t agree with O. I gotta side with the article. To go further, it is more “slacktivism” than activism; it’s right up there with Support Our Troops on bumper stickers. Showing support with a pic is nice, but showing up to a rally and showing actual face is better and actually means something. That’s real visibility; your Facebook presence isn’t visibility if it’s just exposed to your 24 gay friends and only 4 gay allies. I’ll conclude with this quote…

    “Changing your profile photo to support something you believe in is the least you can do. Literally — LITERALLY — it is the least you can do. You almost did nothing. But, instead, you did slightly more than nothing.” — Jimmy Kimmel

  24. But to your point, “actual’ activism – standing outside of the Supreme Court and marching on Washington would be equally ineffective for the reasons you present. The Supreme Court justices are not making a decision based on activism. So really, the argument that changing a Facebook profile photo will not make an impact that will change the outcome of these court cases applies equally to activism people may not be so critical of.

    I won’t repeat all of the reasons why I think it was activism, was important and meaningful to many. They’ve been noted here already. I will say my mother is still posting pro-marriage equality items on Facebook and so I think this is more like real activism than you think. It’s a safe way to debate and discuss and let people who know you know where you stand. And it sure made me feel good.

    The real activism will come in June, when the Court offers decisions that leave us unsatisfied. I think there is very little chance the Court will overturn marriage bans in states that define marriage. And while small progress is progress, we will need to work hard fight for gays and lesbians in the 30+ states that will still discriminate against them. Facebook profile photos will not be enough to get that job done, but don’t discount the impact they have on how people not directly affected by this think about it.

  25. Well after we are all married and happy. We need to work ON “E&R” for erase racism!!!!!!!!! it’s just as big of an issue in the gay community.

  26. Okay Mr. Grump-a-lot! Way to make people feel bad about something they thought was good. Next time, they won’t do anything!

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