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When your campaign provokes backlash, campaign more!

Sometimes, our campaigns don’t produce the desired effects and can even provoke a serious backlash. What can we do about it?

Leo Zbancă (he/ they), LGBT+ activist, film-maker, expert in storytelling, and programme coordinator at GENDERDOC-M Information Center shares their experience.

GENDERDOC-M Information Center is the oldest LGBT organisation in Moldova with 25 years of experience.

Can you explain the context in which this campaign was created?

In Spring 2022, a transgender girl in Moldova tragically died by suicide after enduring two years of relentless bullying at school. Despite teachers being aware of the bullying and sometimes even endorsing it, no intervention took place, and even the Ministry of Education ignored the issue. The girl’s mother sought help from GDM at the beginning of 2022, prompting us to publicly highlight the prolonged bullying she had faced. Even though the girl received support from our specialists to recover from her trauma and attended support groups, our limited time with her didn’t avert the tragedy. In response, GDM organized a high-profile protest at the Ministry of Education to raise awareness and prevent future incidents. This generated significant media attention and brought the already familiar case to the public’s attention again to highlight the dire situation.

What exactly was the campaign about?

At GDM, I am responsible for advocacy and campaign training for activists. When I was running the training course in July 2022, one of the participants immediately said that this was the topic she wanted to explore in her campaign, because she was so touched by thestory. Even though she isn’t from the LGBT community, she has children of her own and works for an organisation focused on protecting children’s rights.

This campaign was called “LGBT children in your school” and was directed at teachers. The main problem is that most teachers don’t understand LGBT people or know how to communicate with such teenagers. They don’t understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. The campaign consisted of a series of videos where a lesbian girl talked about several situations she faced at school, plus educational materials for teachers on the SOGI topic.

What was the reaction?

The reaction was lightning-fast. 40 minutes following the launch of the campaign, the information was shared on all the homophobic social media accounts claiming  that the point of the campaign was to spread LGBT propaganda among minors in schools. Even the former president of the country (who holds pro-Russian views) commented on it. Unfortunately, the media didn’t bother to fact check and continued to spread this misleading information about our campaign. We were overwhelmed with calls and messages asking for clarification, and we had to explain over and over again that our campaign was aimed at teachers and not at children.

Public reaction was not very positive either. People (and especially parents) launched petitions to prevent us from entering schools, and so on. The Ministry of Education did not react, although we believe that they should have said that all children deserve respect and protection.

How did you deal with this backlash?

We realized that the only possible way to calm the reaction was to create a counter narrative. So in December 2022, we started a new campaign entitled “LGBT children exist”.

We understood that our opponents’ main argument was that children and teenagers can not identify as LGBT. So we decided to create a campaign that would explain the true situation.

Firstly, we made a TV programme with a psychologist on the topic of SOGI.

Secondly, we made an art-object from flowers that said “LGBT Children” on the central street of Chisinau (because in our country there is a proverb which says that children are the flowers of life).

We watched the reactions of  passers-by: some took photographs of this inscription, some simply picked up flowers, and some trampled this inscription with their feet.  After one hour, someone destroyed everything. 

The third thing we did was to publish an online survey which contained only one question: How old were you when you first fell in love? After people had entered the number, they received a message explaining that this is the age when they discovered their sexual orientation (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or any other). 

The last thing was a vox pop. It was based on the principle of marketing theory that if a person answers two questions positively, it is very difficult for them to give a negative answer to a third one. So we posed three questions: Is every child’s life important? Should children suffering from bullying be protected? Does this also apply to homosexual or transgender children? Obviously, everyone answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, but the last one left some of them perplexed. Nevertheless, the majority of respondents agreed that all children need protection. (subtitles available in English)


How do you see the results of the two campaigns?

It’s hard to assess the effectiveness of each campaign separately. There was a lot of coverage in the media. People talked about our campaigns and this topic in general.  We hope that at least some people now realise that LGBT children do exist, and that LGBT is not only about sex, nor that it is an insult.

As for the first campaign and its initial objective,I can’t judge how effective it was, but I’m sure that some teachers changed their behaviors.. Overall, I’m rather glad that it all happened this way, because people talked and discussed the issues which means that they started thinking.

What do you personally think about bad press?

When we talk about activism — and especially LGBT activism – we need to be very careful. Negative coverage may reinforce prejudice and lead to more discrimination. We need to be aware of the responsibility we hold.

Lessons learnt

Some colleagues from other CSOs criticised us for our choice of campaign  title.. They believe the title probably  provoked thehuge backlash.

I’m not so convinced.. We had to mention LGBT children to counteract what our opponents are trying to do – to erase them from the narrative.

I think that with a different, more neutral title, our campaign wouldn’t have worked at all. A campaign title should always be snappy and memorable. It should generate emotions.

What we didn’t expect, and what I consider to be the biggest lesson learnt, is that our opponents follow us really closely and are always ready to distort anything we say or post. With this in mind, I’m much more careful now. I think about how to present the information on our pages. Sometimes, we even choose to launch some campaigns from the pages of our allies, as we did this year for the Moldova Pride week. In this way, we still get the needed response, but attract less attention from our opponents.