From George Clooney to Angelina Jolie and Don Cheadle, celebrities have shown that by manipulating their star power, they can lend a well-needed boost to causes seeking the center stage while enhancing their public image. Madonna is not a newcomer to campaigning for causes; the pop phenomenon and self-proclaimed freedom fighter has vowed to speak out against the anti-gay law recently passed in St. Petersburg, Russia that bans LGBT propaganda that could give minors the false perception that traditional and nontraditional relationships are socially equal.
While Madonna and other celebrities involved in causes pertaining to the global gay community carry good intentions in speaking out and raising awareness, does their involvement do more good than harm? The answer is yes and no.
Whenever a famous face is attached to a campaign, it attracts more publicity. Consider Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No anti-drug campaign in the 1980s and the Magic Johnson’s Foundation for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in the 1990s. While the overall success of these campaigns remain debatable, they were triumphant in bringing the issues they represented to a wider audience. This is the advantage that celebrities and public figures can offer to social causes in dire need of increased visibility and funding.
However, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA), 76 of the 193 members of the United Nations have laws criminalizing homosexuality. Most of these countries hail from cultures abhorrent to western ideals of freedom and individuality. Homosexuality is therefore viewed as a western import and celebrities offering to shepherd the gay cause only reinforce this suspicion.
In addition, celebrities speaking out against laws in other countries and encouraging the international community to reprimand countries may incite sovereignty issues. As has been common in recent years, humanitarian issues have been used to mask military invasions driven by other agendas making these concerns very legitimate. For example, last November, UK Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut the bilateral aid known as general budget support to countries that refuse to reform laws which criminalize homosexuality. The Prime Minister’s threat was met with repulsion and condemned as a colonial display of power. Therefore, his threats did not help, but rather retarded the growing gay movement in these countries.
Furthermore, cultural differences should also be weighed. While explicit criminalization of homosexual behavior by a state is unjust, we should also keep in mind that laws based on morality stem from deep-rooted cultural and religious structures that are profoundly embedded in the social fabric of these societies. Thus, we should be careful not to impose our perceptions of “right” and “wrong.”
Movements fare better when they are represented by person(s) from within and if help is offered from the outside, it should be well strategized as to ensure that there are no conflicting interests that may hinder the core mission of the movement. As a touchy subject here in the U.S. where homosexuals are still barred from rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts, celebrities involved in global gay activism are doing a noble deed by raising awareness, but they should also be cautious not to yield unintended consequences by their involvement.