Strategic Mobilisation

Strategic mobilisation refers to the decision of an organisation or group to focus their efforts and resources on a particular area of intervention. This could be on tackling a discriminatory policy or law, or a social issue that is seen to be of particular interest or importance. The focus area may have strategic importance in itself – i.e. changing a discriminatory policy or law - or it may be a means to another end such as raising public awareness of an issue, or of the work of the organisation, or both. This form of mobilisation will probably have a specific, identified purpose or outcome around which the action is directed. Focusing on one area rather than a broad strategy can help an organisation to develop expertise, knowledge and contacts in that area, which may increase the chances of achieving its objectives. Evidence suggests that where the area chosen is less threatening to policy makers or civil society (such as areas of employment law rather than marriage or family law, for example), this can also increase the chances of success.

Strategic mobilisation requires that a group or organisation focus their energy, time, expertise and funds on a particular area. As such, it carries a number of risks. For example, the action may not achieve its objectives or result in unwanted outcomes that harm the organisation, or the cause. The organisation may not have the resources or the expertise to complete the action, or may be damaged by hostile media coverage and lack of public support. Also, where funds and time are dedicated to a particular area, they are not available for others. This could have a negative effect on future advocacy work.

Strategic Mobilisation vs ‘Strategic Invisibility’

Because of the risks and cost of strategic mobilisation, many organisations and groups chose to operate through a less public, less confrontational approach. This has been described by one sociologist as ‘strategic invisibility’ (Currier, 2012). Rather than taking to the streets, or mobilising a public campaign, activists deliberately stay out of the public eye. Instead they may choose to focus on grassroots work such as creating awareness of LGBT people and fostering respect and acceptance at a community level. Other activities include trying to gather social support from influential figures such as local leaders, politicians, media figures etc, through quiet dialogue. These more discreet forms of LGBT activism may be particularly useful in countries with discriminatory legal or policy frameworks or where discrimination against sexual minorities is openly tolerated. Historically, strategic invisibility has been an important pre-curser to strategic mobilisation, or more public forms of LGBT activism, because of its emphasis on building solidarity and social networks.

Stonewall and the case of the ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual people serving in the UK military

Before 2000, lesbian, gay and bisexual people were banned from serving in the British Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Royal Air Force). If you were discovered to be, or admitted to being, lesbian, gay or bisexual, you were formally discharged; a process that included losing benefits and entitlements such as pensions. You could also face criminal prosecution and it was an offence not to report if you knew that one of your serving colleagues was gay.

Before 2000, those under suspicion were actively investigated, including having their homes searched and undergoing personal interrogation. There was a climate of fear amongst lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women serving in the military who had to hide their sexuality from their colleagues and friends to avoid being ‘hounded out’. Prior to 2000, many serving men and women of high rank and considerable training and experience, were lost to the Forces through being discharged on the basis of their sexuality. As those who were discharged were recorded under an administrative category it is still not known how many men and women were discharged in this way.

In 1992 Stonewall were approached for support by an ex-service man who had been discharged on the basis of his sexuality. Stonewall had no prior experience of conducting legal cases and had no staff with legal training. But they decided to support the case because of its strategic significance.

Between 1992 and 1998 Stonewall worked to support a series of high-profile challenges to the ban. This led to the redrafting and updating of official policy and guidelines within the Armed Forces as well as the commissioning of reports to assess the status of gay service personnel. But it did not lead to the ban being lifted.

Inside Story: Click on this

to listen to Mandy McBain's (OBE) experience of serving as a lesbian in the Navy before the ban was lifted

In 1998 Stonewall were approached by a further four ex-service women and men for legal representation and began a long battle in the British courts.

The case put forward by the UK Government was that:

“because of the close physical conditions in which personnel often have to live and work, [and] also because homosexual behaviour can cause offence, polarise relationships, induce ill-discipline, and . . . damage morale and unit effectiveness."

While the UK judges recognised that the ban was not justified on these grounds they were unable to overturn it. As a result, in 1998 the case was taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The final judgment of the Court ruled that the ban was unjustifiable on this basis. The judgement ruled that negative attitudes towards homosexuality within the military were no more justified as a reason for the ban than negative attitudes towards those of a ‘different race, origin or colour’ would be.

After the victory

The ban was lifted in January 2000 and lesbian, gay and bisexual people could legally serve in the UK forces. But this was not a straight forward victory and the military were faced with a number of difficult questions in the years following. For example: should those who had been dismissed get their jobs back? Should they be paid compensation for the loss of earnings? How would the whole culture of the armed forces change? These were questions that had not been considered.

Further challenges arose from the failure to provide adequate training and education to senior members of the military. While a new Sexual Code of Conduct was issued, it was not clear how high ranking officers should behave towards their staff, or how the environment was to be made more inclusive and welcoming for new LGB recruits. As these questions were not properly addressed, many military personnel still do not feel able to reveal their sexuality to their colleagues. While the military now actively recruit from within the LGBT community, including through adverts in magazines and the annual Pride celebrations, the task of educating people within the military to understand the different lifestyles of their staff and to recognise their own prejudices, is ongoing.

Inside Story: Click here to listen to Mandy McBain (OBE) talk about serving as a lesbian in the Navy after the ban was lifted


This was the longest campaign that Stonewall have ever run. Over the 8 years, Stonewall focused their energy, experience, connections and funding on [awaiting confirmation]. It was a long, difficult battle, accompanied by bitterness from within the army as a result of the increased workload and the poor handling of the case. In addition, very little was done to prepare senior Armed Forces members for dealing with life beyond the ban. This was particularly challenging given how entrenched homophobia was within the male-dominated culture of the Forces. As a result, it took a number of years for the Forces to recognise that if they were to attract the best talent, they needed to actively state their inclusion of gay people. Stonewall now work with over 600 businesses to encourage them to look at their inclusion policies and strategies, including making it clear that sexuality is not a barrier to employment and that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are welcome within their organisation.

What you can do

  • Think about areas that could be strategically important for your organisation. These might not necessarily be the obvious ones.
  • Consider the needs and experiences of your members. What are the issues coming up most frequently? Are there particular areas of policy or law that you have not considered that would address these needs?
  • Consider how you would manage and sustain a campaign if it were to carry on over many years.
  • How will you finance your campaign or action?
  • If you do achieve your goal, what input will be needed afterwards?
  • What media training do you have?
  • What would happen if you were not successful? If you did not achieve your goal?

Further Reading

The Road to Equality - a chronology of key dates for the Armed Forces from the British Armed forces LGBT e-network.

UK military gay ban illegal from BBC News online

Stonewall website for the UK Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual charity

Currier, A. (2012). Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa (Social Movements, Protest and Contention. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press

Mixing Business and Pleasure with some of Africa's Invisible Gay Activists blog post from Think Africa Press, 13th January 2014

Shuga: Gay Rights from the Ground Up article from Think Africa Press.