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With site, alums aim to shift gay-rights focus

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Two Stanford alumni, Brian Elliot ’03 and Patty Buckley M.B.A. ’09, recently launched a social networking site aimed at mobilizing straight people for gay rights. The new nonprofit, Friendfactor, is based in New York.

The site’s premise is simple: focus the gay rights campaign on individuals instead of on a larger, impersonal movement. Both Elliot, the founder, and Buckley, the COO, referenced a CBS poll that claimed 77 percent of Americans have someone close to them who is gay–a statistic they say provides an impetus for their grassroots effort.

“Gay rights aren’t that important to most people, but gay friends are,” Elliot said. “We want to amass large amounts of friends who want to help friends.”

“If you change the rhetoric from ‘gay people’ to a friend’s name, it resonates differently,” Buckley said. “It’s all about the framing.”

The site is set up to have two types of users: “advocates”–people deeply devoted to the cause, regardless of orientation–and “supporters,” who join to help. Advocates can call on their supporters for aid in a variety of ways, from voting on referendums to participating in public education campaigns, which could consist of as little as a Facebook status.

“For supporters, it’s 10 or 15 minutes a month to help their friends get full legal freedoms faster,” Elliot said.

The page itself aims for simplicity: “gay” is used instead of “LGBT,” because, Elliot reasons, fewer people understand the acronym. In addition, Facebook Connect is used as the means of networking, so members are not prompted to do much legwork.

The ultimate goal is to rapidly speed up the movement’s rate of change. At its current progress, Elliot said, gay Americans will have full rights in no fewer than 10 years. By creating peer-to-peer accountability–a tactic that, he said, has never been properly or fully implemented–Elliot hopes to achieve equal freedoms in far less time.

But Elliot wonders, “How much less?” The question dates back to the site’s origins in late 2009, when Elliot, who is out, asked his friends a question: “What would it take for me to have equal rights in three years?”

“It was pie in the sky, but it mobilized a lot of energy,” he said. “Young, straight folks haven’t been asked to do too much before.”

He said that once he explained that gay rights extended beyond marriage–he referenced laws in 29 states that allow for people to be fired from their jobs simply because of their sexual orientation–his friends were eager to get engaged.

He then started a Facebook group, “Give Brian Equality.” He invited 600 friends; 300 joined. Within four weeks, it had 19,000 members.

He quit his job on Dec. 4, 2009, to become what he calls a “professional gay.” The response, he said, has been overwhelmingly positive. So far, Friendfactor has raised $500,000 and has an advisory board with both high-ranking Democrats and Republicans on board. The nonprofit has three full-time employees and a slew of volunteers. About 10 work in Friendfactor’s New York City office.

“These people believe that this will push the needle,” Buckley said.

The site currently has 800 registered beta testers and will have a soft launch in four to six weeks. Although the focus is currently specific to the gay rights movement, Buckley sees Friendfactor as a “highly replicable model” for any host of issues.

“We’re trying to mobilize millions of Americans,” Buckley said. “This will shift the way we think about gay rights. It’s a game changer.”

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