Valentine's Special: Queeries

This Valentine's Day, Alex Lambert looks at how the the internet provides a safe space for LGBTs to communicate and find love online

Girl holding sign saying Hi I'm Gay, Tara

Image: Tare Beth Robertson

Valentine’s Day has come to be a day for couples to declare their love for one another. But, other than the The Couple, we shouldn't forget another prominent player in the modern Valentine’s Day cast - The Secret Admirer. This anonymous amour may have been popularised by the rise of the postal service which allowed Valentine’s to be sent anonymously. It has been tremendously popular since; I remember charity projects at school including anonymous Valentine’s deliveries – much to the embarrassment of those receiving gifts in lessons.

Playing the role of The Secret Admirer allows us to express ourselves honestly, if not personally. For queer people, anonymity can be an essential tool allowing them to explore who they are. Fast forward from the 20th century post office, to the 21st century internet, and things become a whole lot easier. 

The internet is a wonderful safe space, and one which has had a big impact on me. Somewhere in its vastness there are blogs, wikis, mailing lists, chat rooms, forums on any conceivable topic – an expanded Rule 34 of The Internet if you will. Each of those communities can be an isolated haven from the storm of society. As a young man struggling with accepting my sexuality and with no chance of accessing “real-life” support without outing myself, the internet was my source of information and community.

These spaces allowed me to take off, rather than don, a mask. I could go into these spaces and be honest about who I was. In an LGBT space the expectation is that you are LGB or T or at the very least, supportive. Even if there was someone in there who knows you, they are supportive and not a threat. Growing up, I was able to access websites, chatrooms, mailing lists and forums of other young people going through what I was; sharing stories and explaining a whole new language. These spaces showed me something that TV did not: being gay didn’t mean being Graham Norton or, later, Stuart Allen Jones, Vince Tyler or Nathan Maloney. I could be exactly who I was – quite why I chose to be Vince though, is a complete mystery. They were spaces where being homophobic earned you not laughs but warnings and the operator’s boot.

These safe spaces are only any good if they can be found and accessed. Smartphones and mobile internet are becoming more and more common place, particularly for young people. But school computers and many mobile operators offer (in some cases, as an opt-out system) content filtering.

The filtering services available and being used don’t just cover porn sites though. They also cover a wide variety under which also falls “Adult Content”, “Alternative Lifestyle” and “Gay and Lesbian” categories. None of these categories are code words for illegal content. They cover things that society frowns upon or that fall outside the established norms. In some cases they are things that some people happen to like making a lot of noise about. I am sure we’ve all seen bad examples of filtering, so here are some of my favourites:

 1) One story I heard recently had a sixth form student unable to access a Games Development course online prospectus entry because the word “game” was universally blocked - bye bye whole branches of mathematics.

2) My mobile internet provider, before I opted out of filtering, blocked Stonewall.

3) LGBT History Month was blocked by a school’s filter as “Adult Content”.

This level of content blocking is not healthy for young people needing advice and information, particularly in a society which is unable or unwilling to provide it. Now imagine your internet provider telling you that you are not able to access the information which may help you because it’s deemed “unsuitable” and is equated with pornography. Mental health issues such as depression, self harm and suicide have been shown to disproportionately affect queer youth, largely because of the immense pressure living in a society which expects something different.

Young people have to be able to access safe spaces. For some it is the only place they will be able to get appropriate sex education. For some it will allow them to understand who they are and work to accept that sooner. For some it is about understanding that there are other ideas outside the seemingly rigid boxes of Straight, Lesbian, Gay and Bi or Man, Woman and Trans. For some it will just be knowledge that they are not alone.

And isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is about - not being alone?

Alex Lambert is a queer geek from Manchester and if you chose him tonight, he'll take you to his favourite safe space – Bletchley Park. He tweets as @penwing.

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Comments (3)

  1. Graham Armstrong:
    Feb 14, 2011 at 03:48 PM

    A very good article, both an interesting insight and thought provoking. The ability for people to say what they like is certainly one of the founding pillars of the world wide web, excessive filtering will be catastrophic to the "anything goes" attitude which I'm proud the internet generally has!

    1. penwing:
      Feb 14, 2011 at 08:05 PM

      Thank you. I was hoping to move away from purely thinking in terms of freedom of speech, but also to recognise that freedom of association is every bit as important. Unfortunately the idea "freedom of association" didn't come into my head until this evening seeing some EU T-Shirt designs... D'Oh!

      x x

  2. Milena Popova:
    Feb 15, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    I want to write something deep and clever and meaningful in response to this, but you know what? Alex said it all. So thank you Alex for writing this, and thank you ORGZine for publishing it - a timely reminder that digital rights have a disproportionate impact on minorities and diverse groups.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Alex Lambert on Feb 14, 2011

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