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Ben

June 1997

Hi, I'm Ben. I've been thinking about writing for Oasis for several months now. I've got a lot of stuff to talk about here, so trust me and stick with it.

I'll start with the basics. I'm 17 years old, a junior in high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I'm queer. Not really gay, not really bisexual, and certainly not straight. I'm queer, okay? Mostly, I go to school, write web pages (who doesn't these days?) and take care of computers and networks and file servers and all that at my school. As I said once "I sit around with a lot of duct tape and wire and pliers and make stuff work." Accurate enough.

I do a few queer things. I run a mailing list for the University of Michigan's Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Affairs, as well as maintain their webpage. I also chill with my school's Gay Straight Alliance (more on that later).

Right now, I'm involved with a really great organization called Peacefire which I want to tell you all about. Peacefire is an organization founded and run by teenagers to fight net censorship and promote free speech. One of the things we focus attention on is Internet filtering software like CYBERsitter. What does this have to do with us queers? Well... Did you know that a lot of the filtering software companies have bizarre religious organizations backing them? CYBERsitter alone blocks the National Organization for Women, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and get this... the Godiva Chocolates webpage. Not only does it block these sites, but it also will erase the words "gay, gay rights, queer, lesbian, bisexual" and a variety of different contexts those words might be used in.

A lot of parents, schools and libraries are installing this kind of software on their computers. It's not just CYBERsitter either, most of the filtering software block sites about gay and lesbian rights, even pages about suicide prevention! So what's up with that? Do you realize that, when viewed with CYBERsitter running, most of Oasis wouldn't even make sense?

So, once again, queers are being targeted. We're being censored, filtered away by software companies and religious groups. What's worse is that this stuff is being installed in schools and public libraries. It's getting directly in the way of education, it's keeping a lonely guy just like me three years ago from finding a place. The message has to get out, and there are some great people working on it at Peacefire. Give their website a chance. Educate people about this stuff, because it won't let them do it on their own.

Imagine the Internet as a place which wasn't as open and friendly to gay youth as it is today. Sure, it's not as great as it could be, but it's provided a lot of help for me and friends I've gotten to know. This censorship stuff is scary, real scary.

A few months ago, an out gay guy named Justin wanted to speak at the Cultural Awareness week assembly at one of the bigger high schools in town. The administration said no because they couldn't guarantee his safety, some also questioned whether there really was a "gay culture." HELLO?! First of all, a school is legally obligated to provide a safe environment for its students; second, of course we're a culture! This sparked what turned out to be a very powerful event for a lot of people around here. The students, even those who may not agree with homosexuality, got really pissed. People believed that Justin had the right to speak. They were outraged that he was being denied the opportunity. The administration changed their mind, he got to speak.

In response to this, several things happened. A teacher from the school wrote a conservative Christian Detroit area radio station with a long anonymous rant about the dangers of homosexuality and all that crap. Being none-too-bright, he left the file on his computer at school, which was recovered by a student and published in the underground newspaper. This was much after parents went to the school board to protest that they weren't warned about the "homosexual speaker" at the cultural awareness assembly. Drama, blah.

But no, the story goes on. Later that month, a bunch of people found a webpage the teacher had posted using his school district account about the holocaust. Being the lovely man that he is, he'd put up a lovely page all about how gays caused the holocaust and that, in fact, all Nazis were gay and crazy. He linked to the Pink Swastika, and even included a page about how gays were more prone to be child molesters and other such guck. The news of these pages spread fast, hundreds of copies were printed up throughout the district by angry students and staff. The shit hit the fan.

Due to the nature of the parental complaints at the previous school board meeting, the Queer community thought it would be cool to show up in force at the next one. And that we did. We packed the place full of supporters. Parents, teachers, students and others all spoke in behalf of the Gay Straight Alliances at two of the high schools in Ann Arbor. It was a very powerful experience.

The webpage was taken down by the teacher. Should it have been? I don't know. I'm 100% for free speech. I'm 100% for a person's right to publish stuff on the web. But this confused me. I wouldn't feel safe going to a school where I knew teachers disapproved of my lifestyle, and might either discriminate against me because of it or fail to take action to prevent discrimination. It was discouraging to know that a teacher, someone whose job it is to provide a safe environment for students and to teach them, would publicly publish something as hateful as he did. I still can't say whether he should have removed it or not, but I'm glad he did.

So I think that's it for now. Next time, more news on the queer front, maybe a little less political. I think it's important for gay youth to really stay involved in these kinds of issues though. Keep in touch, get involved and all that gunk.

Have fun,

Ben


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