Light Up the Night: Brisbane Story Bridge

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Various local authorities, embassies and even university buildings and monuments have been lit up in rainbow colours to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. These are visually stunning actions which impact a lot of people – all those passing by, as well as very often, people seeing them in the media.

One of the most impactful of these actions was the lighting up of the Brisbane Story Bridge in Queensland, Australia, for the IDAHOT 2014 (pictured), which was widely shared on social media around the world on the Day.
We asked Phil Browne of the Brisbane LGBTIQ Action Group, the group that pressured Brisbane council to do this, a few questions about they went about organising for this action. And they told us this inspiring story…
What was the context for the action?
Brisbane is the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland, and is Australia’s third largest city, with approximately 2.25 million living in the metropolitan area. Queensland has a reputation of being Australia’s most conservative state, with some commenting it is 20 years behind more progressive parts of Australia. Many other metropolitan, regional, and even rural councils do a great deal to acknowledge and support their LGBT residents. Our group wanted to bring similar reforms and activities to the Brisbane City Council, which administers a significant portion of the metropolitan area and is Australia’s largest local government.
BLAG was formed in mid 2011. A public meeting was promoted via gay media, to form a new lobby group to push for Brisbane City Council to show greater awareness of, and inclusion of/support for marginalised LGBT residents. Initially we contacted many other Australian councils asking what initiatives they had for their LGBT citizens. We then had hard evidence of the great support and recognition many other councils offered, and we presented this when we met with Councillors at Brisbane City Council.
It was important that we be seen to be asking for support of a marginalised minority group, rather than asking for “special rights”. We knew LGBT people experienced far worse health and social outcomes as a result of suffering long-term prejudice and discrimination, but we needed impartial evidence that proved this, to support our call for action by our council. To this end we located credible research findings demonstrating these worse health and social outcomes – including, alarmingly, a four times higher rate of suicide attempts – and we presented these findings too, when we met with Councillors.
These research findings include, this compilation of Australian Bureau of Statistics and other research findings, and the February 2014 Growing Up Queer report by University of Western Sydney.
Since our group’s inception, we have made a point of maintaining communication with all sides of politics. Brisbane City Council is currently controlled by the Liberal National Party (LNP), with Councillors from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in opposition, plus one Independent Councillor. We meet and communicate with both the Council and the Council opposition, plus other political parties likely to run candidates in future elections. All sides of politics need to be aware of issues that are important to LGBT residents.
Where/how did the idea originate? What were the main assumptions behind the idea, the main expectations?
BLAG members were aware of many other Councils, both in Australia and internationally, that take actions to recognise IDAHOT. We researched actions taken by other Australian Councils, including flying the rainbow flag from Council buildings, holding IDAHOT events, and illuminating Council buildings/structures in rainbow lights.
Our aim was to promote public awareness of the harm homophobia/transphobia does to real people, and to generate awareness and positive behaviour change in mainstream society. We also wanted to offer a strong show of support to LGBT people, especially youth, who may be suffering in silence and thinking they are the only gay person in Brisbane – how positive is it for an LGBT kid to see their city’s largest bridge lit in rainbow lights! It would have been a great help to have this positive imagery during our own upbringing, so if we can assist others in their journey to acceptance, that is terrific.

We also wanted to offer a strong show of support to LGBT people, especially youth, who may be suffering in silence and thinking they are the only gay person in Brisbane – how positive is it for an LGBT kid to see their city’s largest bridge lit in rainbow lights!

What were the risks/threats/obstacles involved and how did you deal with them?
We couldn’t see any major risks. Our aim all along has been to maintain a respectful communication with all side of politics. We knew that to be taken seriously, we needed to be calm, respectful, organised and well researched.
An obstacle was the Council not complying with our requests – we overcame this by going to the the Council Opposition, and campaigning for widespread media coverage (details below).
How did you get it done? How much time did it take? How much did it cost? How many people did it involve? What were the tactics that you used?
Once we had obtained evidence showing actions taken by other Councils for IDAHOT, we then presented this to our own Council. This included the following webpages, complete with photos, on other Council websites (Hobson Bay, Darebin, Moreland, Wyndham). Importantly, we also included research findings showing how anti-LGBT discrimination and prejudice, results in far worse outcomes for LGBT residents (such as the above research reports).
We asked that the Council take actions to show support for LGBT residents by means of:

  • Flying the rainbow flag from Council properties/flagpoles.
  • Illuminating our city’s largest bridge, the Story Bridge, in rainbow lights for IDAHOT.

Unfortunately the Lord Mayor did not agree to our requests. Had we given up then – nothing would have been achieved. Instead, we then showed the Council Opposition our requests, and they agreed to raise the issue during Question Time at a Council meeting.
Shortly after, during a Council meeting, the Opposition asked the Lord Mayor if he would support our request – and the Lord Mayor again refused. Multiple journalists attend Council meetings, and they pounced on this story, requesting media interviews with our group. The media were very supportive and we gained media attention via local suburban newspapers, a newspaper covering the whole state, plus radio and television news interviews. It was big news and clearly the media were on our side.
It was during a subsequent radio interview, that the Council unexpectedly announced they would illuminate the Story Bridge in rainbow lights for IDAHOT. This was followed by this letter from the Council advising they will also illuminate the Story Bridge in rainbow lights for IDAHOT in future years.
How much did it cost? How many people did it involve?
Our group had no costs in achieving this.
A handful of people had input in this process. Different people took on different roles:
Some researched what other Councils did for IDAHOT (this involved Google searches, plus approaching Councils by e-mail and phone). Others composed and responded to e-mails to/from Council. Others did media interviews. Others provided quotes to be used in a media release.
How do you rate the impact of this action, and how did you see its effects?

The impact was far greater than we had ever imagined. If this has helped just one troubled LGBT person dealing with discrimination, or prevented one suicide, it has been so so worth it.

We are very pleased with the end result, which had a big impact.
Many LGBT locals commented on how terrific is felt to see their identity, and their very existence acknowledged so publicly by Council. The gay and mainstream media reported on this and carried photos of the bridge boldly beaming rainbow colours (Council didn’t get the colours 100% correct – but we will work with them to improve the colours next year). Social media was abuzz with photos of the rainbow bridge, and it was noticed not only all over Australia, but around the world.
The impact was far greater than we had ever imagined. If this has helped just one troubled LGBT person dealing with discrimination, or prevented one suicide, it has been so so worth it.
We still would like to see our Council follow other Councils and fly the rainbow flag for IDAHOT. We will keep advocating for this to happen.
What advice would you give to other people who’d like to undertake this activity?
Do it – just go ahead and do it.
Don’t rush in, it’s far better to do your research and have a plan. It may initially seem unachievable, but if you take it one step at a time, it can be done.
Once you have all your supporting evidence, and are clear in what you want to achieve, then it’s time to proceed. Make sure you can provide hard evidence to your Council that demonstrates LGBT people are suffering worse health and social outcomes as a result of marginalisation following prejudice and discrimination – without this, you can be seen as wanting “special rights”. Also make sure you provide evidence of what other Councils, both locally and internationally, are doing to support LGBT residents. By all means provide your Council with media articles about Brisbane City Council illuminating our city’s largest bridge in rainbow lights.
If the Council is not supportive, then go to the Council opposition and try and gain support from them. Even if your Council is supportive, it’s good practice to keep the Opposition and other parties informed of your group’s activities and goals.
If you believe your requests are fair and just, and your Council does not support your requests for action, then go to the media. Learn to write a media release and send this to local media outlets if required. Make sure you include concise details of – who, what, where, when and why. By providing a high-resolution photo and 3 or 4 one-line quotes from supporters, you make your story much more likely to be published.
Should the media not support your cause, then get community members to write letters to local newspapers in support of your cause.

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