"Convinced you've found your place
with the pierced queer teens in cyberspace"
--Third Eye Blind, "Losing A Whole Year"
I spent the first few years of the Internet's budding existence unconnected. Until the late months of '96, all I could do was listen attentively to the enthusiastic stories about Internet chat rooms and the unlimited power of the information superhighway. The Internet was like this shining utopian Atlantis that everyone was vacationing in except for me. But then I moved away to college and was finally able to pass through those heavenly fiberoptic gates. In the years before I logged on, either things changed a lot or something is seriously wrong with me.
Let me explain. I'm a person who loves dialogue. I love to argue and discuss topics both large and small, of both personal and global significance. I love having my moral outlook and worldview challenged constantly. Enter the Internet. The net is filled with chat rooms and listservers and email discussions where information and argumentation fly back and forth with the speed of electrons through phone lines. Sounds like my kind of place, right? I believed all the tales I heard, that the Internet was the final frontier of free speech, a place where anything and everything could be talked about. If I wanted to have a serious discussion about the phallic nature of flyswatters, gosh darnit, somebody on the net would already be having one. If all this sounds like I'm building up to a contradiction, then you're an astute reader. It turns out that the all-natural ingredients in this myth aren't as wholesome as advertised..
The latest brick in my growing dystopian Internet view landed on me just a little while ago. Here's the story: Way back in the day, when I was a young "netizen," my thirst for challenging thought dropped me in the lap of a certain electronic magazine, a mag which claims to "broaden the audience for leftist and progressive writing," and encourages people to think about complex and current subjects. While not a queer publication by any means, it does tend to have a pro-queer and pro-feminist slant, a big plus for me. To protect the innocent and avoid inflaming anyone's sensitivities, we'll call this mag Canned Wolf. I came back to this mag many times and usually enjoyed what I found.
Well this past month, Canned Wolf took on the theme of "gender and sexuality in today's society," tailoring all of its articles that month to that bent. As usual, the writings were insightful and interesting. However, one article did give me pause. It was an examination of the recent Hollywood movies which seem to be cashing in on the current "gay character" fad, movies like In&Out, Chasing Amy>, My Best Friend's Wedding, Object Of My Affection, the list goes on. The author talked extensively about this hetero fascination with turning gays straight and vice versa. She dug deep into this theory of her's, both depending on and supporting the gay/straight dichotomy in a completely circular way while firmly ignoring any bisexual sensitivities that she may have been hurting. She also used the word "queer" quite heavily, but used it to mean "exclusively gay" rather than "generally not-straight" as I've come to understand it. With these concerns in hand, I turned to Canned Wolf's reader discussion list.
Yes, the reader discussion list. An anonymous email list of readers intended to foster discussion on the topics introduced in the mag's articles. In good faith, I joined the list and sent my concerns about this article to the masses, expecting to get both some clarification and some good debate out of them. What I got was neither.
The responses flooded in quickly, each one of them hostile in its wording. They attacked my usage of "queer" and "queer community," telling me in no uncertain terms that queer has always meant gay and always will and that there is no such thing as a "queer community" because there is no unifying trait among gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and what have you. They threw up obscure examples like "men who have sex with men while imagining that they're with women" as absolute proof. Taken aback, but not one to refuse a fight, I defended my position, and within a day, I was receiving messages that read "go away" and (from the author herself) "I personally don't care what you think `as a bisexual.'" Within two days I had become the object of over a dozen people's unbridled aggressions, simply because I challenged some ideas. Instead of an open-minded discussion forum, I'd happened upon a clique in which back-patting and perhaps "safe" dialog was allowed, but nothing challenging or contrary in anyway was tolerated.
Anyone out there who's been on the web long enough knows that this isn't a singular experience either. Lord knows it certainly wasn't my first. I challenge you to walk into a chat room filled with devout Christians and bring up the topic of atheism (or gays, or abortion) and see just how long you last before either being flamed or ignored. The Internet, that vast frontier where anyone can speak their mind and find companionship, is quickly becoming amalgamated into a virtual version of the real world, in which democracy is controlled by the most outspoken people and the powerless really aren't empowered at all. On the web, anyone who controls the forum, either through seniority or long-time standing, seems able to dictate who says what. Dissenters are terrorized with abusive messages until they are silent again.
Communal Censorship On The Web
What this really amounts to is a kind of censorship, isn't it? Even though the Internet has no law per se, some people have taken it upon themselves to decide what ideas prevail and which are quickly aborted. I'll draw some comparisons: Has anyone out there heard of Mike Diana? Diana published his own comic books and ran a comic shop in Florida a while back. His comics were less than tasteful, but there are lot of things in this world that have that label. In 1995, after police raided his shop looking for heroin (which they didn't find), they arrested him and charged him with an obscenity law that Florida basically had to invent on the spot just for him. Diana was tried and found guilty, imprisoned, sentenced to public service duty, and unbelievably enough, told that he couldn't draw anymore, either publicly or in the privacy of his own home. This was the decision of a United States court only a few years ago.
More recently in the news, Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister, took it upon himself to steal copies of Leslea Newman's books "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate" from the Wichita Falls, Texas public library. He vowed to never return the books because their homosexual themes didn't agree with his religious ideas, even though the library is supported by public funds.
And in June, Southern Voice, a queer newspaper serving the southeastern United States, moved their printing from Atlanta to Gainsville, Georgia. Despite being printed by Gannett, a major national printing company, a church-organized protest and boycott in Gainsville led to that week's edition becoming the object of sabotage. The resulting papers were covered with ink smears and blots, and the edges were shipped with uncut and sloppy trim. The newspaper was forced to move it's printing back to Atlanta.
What Happened To The Frontier?
All of these incidents happened in the "real" world, but is this trend spreading to the Internet as well? One look at the recent HateWatch.org controversy speak volumes: the noble watchdog site HateWatch.org recently filed a suit with a religious site calling itself "HateWatch.net" which vehemently attacked anything and everything that deviated from scripture, including many helpful queer sites. Is this just one instance among many of people using censorship to mold the web according to their moral viewpoints? And if the Internet is the future, what does that say? Computers and the Internet are the new educational tools. Even now, schools are sitting kids as young as 5 and 6 down in front of net-connected computers and expecting them to learn from them. If these kids are turning to the aggressive, intolerant discussion forums and strongly-worded hate sites during their formative years, then that's what they're going to emulate as they grow up. It'll be the world-wide realization of all of those private and religious school horror stories that we've always heard-- stories of students' valid ideas being squashed by closed-minded teachers and inquisitive minds being destroyed by the swat of a ruler and the words "don't ask why; just accept it." If people on the web can't accept other viewpoints and talk about them in a controlled and logical manner, then the Internet is actually hurting-- not fostering-- global communication. Can we stop this trend, or is it simple human nature that the biggest and strongest people will always dominate in any environment? That only time will tell.
But, since I've got an open and accepting forum here with Oasis and its readers, let me speak my mind, just for the record. I believe that the word "queer" does mean more than just gay, more than just lesbian-- it encompasses bisexuals too, and maybe even transgenders as well. I believe that Chasing Amy is a bisexually affirming movie no matter what other people say. I believe that there is a queer community, made up of people bound together by mainstream society not accepting their sexuality. These are my beliefs and opinions, and if anyone disagrees with them, then offer me a calm, rational argument to the contrary and I'll welcome the discussion with an open mind. But don't tell me to just "go away," because that I won't do.
Chuck is a 22-year-old bisexual and a Michigan native who now goes to school in Georgia to learn how to draw pretty pictures. His email address is currently firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is at http://g-net.net/~bacchus/