Q+A  

As youth and LGBTQ+ protestors increasingly take to the streets, are their voices being heard?

In a new study, Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks examine youth and LGBTQ+ nonviolent protest participation rates and the impact they might be having on evolving patterns of civil resistance around the world.

Young protestors hold up a sign that reads

Though the pace of nonviolent protests has grown in recent years, until recently little has been understood about the demographics of these protestors themselves and what impact that may have on the ultimate effectiveness of such demonstrations. Earlier this year Kennedy School faculty members Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks co-authored a paper published by USAID examining youth and LGBTQ+ involvement in nonviolent protests around the world. The Ash Center sat down with Chenoweth and Marks to learn more about their research and how youth and LGBTQ+ protest participation is associated with greater chances of political success.

Ash: Your research found that there are more nonviolent protest activities than ever before, which also include a greater number of LGBTQ+ and youth participants. Broadly speaking, what does this mean for the underlying effectiveness of such campaigns?   

Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks: Well, it’s hard to say. We’ve seen a rise in LGBTQ+ participation in mass pro-democracy campaigns around the world at the same time that we’ve seen a record number of those campaigns being defeated or suppressed. It’s unlikely those trends are causally linked. But, it is clear that many of the autocratic regimes that have defeated unarmed mass movements over the past fifteen years—like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary—have promoted homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and policies during that same time period. It’s hard to ignore that we are seeing a backlash against trans and gay rights worldwide, following a period of growing visibility of those communities within broad-based movements demanding greater rights and access to democracy.

Photo of Zoe Marks
“Given the latest rightward turn among autocratic regimes—especially on sex and gender issues—it’s not surprising that LGBTQ+ people and organizations see their own futures as tied to the fate of the pro-democracy movements in which they choose to participate,” argues Zoe Marks, Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS.

While several studies, including yours, have pointed to the fact that nonviolent protests are on the upswing, youth-led protests or those with a considerable number of younger participants are not uncommonly portrayed as violent or unlawful. Depictions of Black Lives Matter protests quickly come to mind. Are these portrayals accurate or otherwise consistent with your research findings?  

We find no evidence that youthful movements are more likely to use violence or to adopt violent flanks than movements with fewer young people in them. On the contrary, we find evidence that, while youthful movements are largely peaceful, government forces tend to commit more human rights abuses as more youthful movements emerge. To the extent that violence plays a part in young people’s social movements, it may be predominantly because the authorities treat such movements with greater brutality.

While frontline youth participation in protests isn’t more violent than other demonstrations, your research finds that they are more likely to face violent repression. Why is extensive youth participation more likely to be met with force than other nonviolent campaigns?  

We need more research to demonstrate why this is happening cross-nationally. However, broadly speaking, young people may be more likely to be perceived as threatening, unruly, or unpredictable when they congregate in large numbers. There’s a history in some countries of poor youth in particular being criminalized, and they may be prominent in campaigns for change. Moreover, different social taboos may shape the nature of repression against movements populated by older demographics. Where elderly populations play a key frontline role, for instance, it may be more socially unacceptable and therefore politically costly to brutalize protesters. This is partly why some youth-led movements, like one in Serbia in 2000, actually invited their elders to participate alongside them. It was explicitly to diminish the police’s use of violence during protests.

Your research reports that LGBTQ+ participation in nonviolent campaigns has increased markedly over the last decade, and not just in Western liberal democracies. What accounts for this sharp rise, even in socially conservative and politically repressive countries? 

There has certainly been a wave of global progress when it comes to LGBTQ+ visibility in general. Hard-fought legal and legislative battles have recognized LGBTQ+ rights in many countries in the world, from the US to South Korea to Argentina to South Africa and beyond. Representations of our celebrities—musicians, actors, artists, and athletes—have helped to normalize LGBTQ+ life, especially within democracies where free expression is protected. Civil society organizations that provide services and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights have received more funding and support than ever before, even in societies where sexual and gender minorities are profoundly marginalized. But it’s definitely easier to fight for minority rights when such rights are protected. Given the latest rightward turn among autocratic regimes—especially on sex and gender issues—it’s not surprising that LGBTQ+ people and organizations see their own futures as tied to the fate of the pro-democracy movements in which they choose to participate.

Photo of Erica Chenoweth
“When mass pro-democracy movements take place, those who support these movements should also insist on youth and LGBTQ+ people and groups being involved in negotiations and implementation of agreements in the aftermath of the movement,” says Erica Chenoweth, Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at HKS.

The study helps illustrate that simply including youth and LGBTQ+ people in campaign movements is alone insufficient to improve their material well-being. For policymakers and advocates seeking to better engage and support younger generations, what approaches would you recommend?

We think there are two big takeaways from the study. The first is that representation in the movement is not enough to secure a seat at the table during negotiations, where power and transitions are brokered, nor does it guarantee advocacy on behalf of the communities that delivered change. Youth participation tends to be associated with greater chances of movement success—and greater chances of democratic consolidation—while also yielding few if any material improvements for young people. The same can also be said of LGBTQ+ people, whose participation in pro-democracy movements rarely translates into equal treatment in society, at least not automatically. Fundamentally, this means that when mass pro-democracy movements take place, those who support these movements should also insist on youth and LGBTQ+ people and groups being involved in negotiations and implementation of agreements in the aftermath of the movement.

Second, people are always better situated to advocate for themselves in the community rather than alone. Supporting youth and LGBTQ+ civil society should therefore be a key priority in the effort to support democracy in general. This means material support, of course, but it also means paying attention to these organizations, amplifying their work, convening like-minded civic groups from around the world – so they can share lessons, build capacity, and foster collaboration – and fighting against threats and abuses that they endure.

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