IN just a matter of years, it’s grown to become one of the world’s biggest social media phenomenons for political activism and LGBTI rights. The Gay Marriage Rights in Australia Facebook page is now a digital juggernaut with around 250,000 followers and counting, and reaching between 500,000-1.5 million people each week. It connects people both here and abroad with the latest on the continuing battle for marriage equality in Australia, as well as updates and news relevant to LGBTI people and their allies. Among those who regularly access the page are journalists, researchers, politicians and human rights groups. And, until this week, behind all of it has been a mild-mannered, unassuming student from Sydney’s inner-west – Ben Cooper.
Aged in his mid-twenties, Cooper’s face and name may not be known to many but his words and posts on the GMRA page would most likely have been viewed by a large portion of the country’s LGBTI community, judging by the amount of daily comments and messages. The immensity of GMRA’s success can be perhaps put into greater context when one learns that Cooper is dyslexic, and along with the help of a team of unpaid volunteers, he has run the page with no funding whatsoever.
After almost five years as GMRA’s lead administrator, Cooper is now retiring from cyber activism. He got his first taste of political activism over a decade ago while still a 14-year-old student in the northern NSW town of Lismore.
“I was involved in organising a high school walk-out in protest against the war in Afghanistan. About 50 students from my high school and around 600 from other local high schools and from Southern Cross University went on strike that day,” he told the Star Observer this week.
“From there, I really developed a passion for social justice and got involved in other causes such as refugee rights and workers rights. At age 17 I came out to a few people as gay but didn’t properly come out until I was 19, which is when I organised my first ever protest for marriage equality in Lismore. Most people had no idea I was gay until they heard me on the radio or read the story about that rally in the local paper. The protest was how I properly came out to most people.”
Cooper became associated with GMRA three days after the Facebook page was created in 2009. He said he now felt the time was right to hand over the reins despite federal marriage equality not yet being achieved.
“I contacted the site about a rally I was organising and the guy who started it handed control of the site over to me as I was heavily involved in the campaign. At that point the site only had a few thousand followers,” he recalled.
“I had never planned to be a part of the campaign until marriage equality is won – I only wanted to build it up to the point that marriage equality is inevitable in the near future and I am confident that marriage equality will be won sooner rather than later in Australia.”
One of the rally-goers at Cooper’s first political protest in Lismore was local resident, Corrine Batt-Rawden, who told the Star Observer that the budding activist’s talents of bringing people together for a unified cause were evident through his teenage years.
“Ben was bright eyed and bushy tailed and very keen to learn of what was going on. Since then Ben’s passion and commitment for social justice and activism has grown into a lifestyle,” she said.
“Ben inspires people and has become a natural leader for taking action to help create a society that is just and equal for all. He has grown into a respected and admired adult.”
Cooper may not be one for the limelight and the heady lights of recognition, but his impact has been immense if the plaudits and tributes coming in from some of the country’s most respected LGBTI advocates are any guide.
Steve Warren, the coordinator of the Seventy Eighters group that represents the participants of the original Sydney Mardi Gras in 1978, said that their spirit of fighting injustice and inequality was one very much shared by Cooper.
“As a 78’er we fought for equality and to eliminate homophobic attitudes and legislation, as did efforts before 1978 and since. The 70s was a period of challenging many issues including the sanctity of marriage but what binds us is the right for all GLBTQI people to be treated equally in the community and in law,” he said.
“I thank people like Ben for continuing to fly the rainbow flag. Ben will be greatly missed on the front line of LGBTI activism but his heart for social justice will live on.”
NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Justin Koonin said Cooper’s dynamism would be missed, with the lobby just one of many groups that relied on GMRA to help spread their message.
“Ben has built Gay Marriage Rights in Australia into an extremely important tool for disseminating information about marriage equality and LGBTI rights more generally. We use GMRA regularly when we want to communicate with supporters,” he said.
“Ben deserves much praise for his dedication to the movement.”
The country’s largest lobby group for equal marriage laws, Australian Marriage Equality (AME), has also benefited from the success of Cooper’s digital and social activism.
“The page has brought the issue of marriage equality to mind to a huge audience every day… not only to members of the LGBTI community but to our many straight allies. It has proven to be a very effective tool in the promotion of marriage equality in Australia,” AME’s NSW co-convener Malcolm McPherson said.
“While the focus has been on marriage equality, the page has been useful in bringing a range of LGBTI issues to a wide audience. GMRA is probably one of the most successful unfunded pages in the world and much of that success is down to Ben’s dedication and skill in using social media.
“Ben has had the support of a group of fellow administrators over that time, people with differing interests, viewpoints and personalities. The smooth running of that group is testament to Ben’s ability to work constructively and effectively with a wide range of people.”
As for the future, longtime co-administrator, Melody Gardiner, has been appointed by the team as GMRA’s new lead administrator, with a group of eight others to assist in keeping the page running smoothly.
“It seems so simple and obvious now but Ben was really the first in Australia to start a big Facebook community to campaign on LGBTI issues. Within a week the page had over ten thousand fans and he was suddenly singlehandedly managing one of the top Facebook pages in Australia,” Gardiner said.
“Ben ran the page by himself for many years and has effectively been on call 24/7, often spending his last dollar on internet access to check the page. When Ben announced he was retiring we knew we’d need a whole team of people to replace him. We’ve brought together an amazing team over the last 12 months. We’re all passionate about continuing Ben’s legacy and excited for what the future holds for marriage equality and LGBTI activism.”
For his part, Cooper, who is currently looking for work, said he could now look back on his time with GMRA with great fondness and pride, with the page not only highlighting reforms for marriage equality but also raising important issues on LGBTI asylum seekers, Mardi Gras violence, and mental health and youth suicide.
“Many of our followers have had no previous involvement in activism, let alone LGBTI activism and it’s fantastic to see them going to rallies and meeting with their MP or starting their own campaign,” he says.
“For some of our fans who are not out this site is the only place where they feel they can freely express themselves and I love the fact that I administrated and built a site that provides them with a place where they feel accepted and can connect with other like minded people and fight for equality.”
An opera singer as a young child, Cooper now plans on returning to the performing arts having sung his heart out with GMRA.