Queer Online Spaces Are Being Threatened By The Government’s Internet Regulation
The ‘real’ world is unsafe for many queer people. Now their online spaces are being threatened.
By Sam Floreani, Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker, Ruby Quail, and Eliza Sorensen.
For many members of LGBTIQ communities, the ‘real’ world is unsafe. This is made worse when queer identities are routinely attacked by conservative politicians, media personalities, and religious figures, trickling down into a pervasive culture that enables bullying, abuse, stigma and discrimination.
Thankfully, the physical world isn’t the only place we exist anymore. For LGBTIQ communities, the internet can be a lifesaver. Hidden inside all those 0s and 1s are virtual homes to many queer folks. When schools, workplaces, and even our families are hostile, violent, unsupportive, or just wish we’d stop making everything about gender and sexuality, there are precious pockets of the internet that are here for us. But these spaces are endangered and at risk of extinction.
Over the past 18 months, online safety has been a big-ticket item for politicians looking to win political points by cracking down on the Big Bad Internet. Through paternalistic calls to protect women and children online, conservatives are attempting to promote a view of online safety that centres on moralism, censorship and ‘cleaning up’ online spaces. In doing so, they seek to divide us by pitting the safety of children against the freedom and safety of queer people.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. This is a tale-as-old-as-time culture war, only digital. We must vehemently reject the notion that sacrificing one group’s safety is the only way to uphold another’s. This is because our collective safety is bound up together, and frankly, LGBTIQ communities are just as concerned about the safety of kids as anyone else.
And when physical spaces are unsafe, the internet can offer our communities an essential lifeline. The recent debate surrounding the Religious Discrimination Bill demonstrated just how quickly environments can turn hostile to queer people, especially trans and gender diverse folks.
The internet is where we can get support, find community, share knowledge, and access vital health information. Beyond that, here is where we can explore, develop identities, learn, and access queer subcultures. Recent research conducted by Tinder found that almost eight in 10 trans youth are only out on the internet, and that one in five queer people come out online before ever telling someone they know in the ‘real’ world.
And ok sure, the internet isn’t some utopian haven for queer people by any means, people can be just as cruel online as they are off. Bullying, abuse, and stigma translates pretty easily from physical to virtual worlds, and — thanks to the business models of big tech — this gets amplified, while queer folks are routinely de-platformed.
Each of us has relied on the internet for survival, support, community and culture. As technologists, activists, and people who are Very Online, we are deeply concerned that the virtual spaces that have played such an important role in our lives are under threat.
Regional country towns are, perhaps unsurprisingly, not the ideal place to navigate questions of gender, sexuality, and queer identity.
I grew up in the liminal space between analog and digital, where my adolescence was forged in the belly of the Internet of dialup modems and bulletin boards. Pre-social media platforms, the digital third places to congregate were forums centred around niche interests, hobbies, TV shows, and local bands. I found my first traces of queer community via the Killing Heidi fan forums.
Many forums and bulletin boards still exist, but they have been largely subsumed by Facebook groups and social media platforms that encourage or enforce “real name policies”. As a young person growing up on the Internet, pseudonymity allowed me to play with gender neutrality in a safe place among other young people similarly figuring it out.
In a virtual crowd of digital teens, I learned about aesthetic and culture, what bands to like, how to find meaning in the lyrics of The Distillers. These tiny windows into queer community showed me how to be open with people without the fear of small-town retribution, and without them, I may have never left.
It’s hard to see transitioning as an option when you don’t see anyone around who is like you. For most of my time in the closet, the only positive trans people I saw in the media were performers and activists, and were presented as straight (or at least attracted to men).
These were important figures, to be sure, but I was exclusively attracted to women, I was studying industrial design not music or theatre, my industry role models were all cis and mostly men. I was convinced that these two worlds were incompatible, that being trans was illicit and unprofessional and not for people like me. It really took finding other trans sapphic people who were open and visible with their gender on Twitter, tumblr, and Reddit, before I realised it was something I could be, that I had a path forward.
Social media also allowed me to be a woman before I could in real life. I stumbled upon a community online that, while didn’t explicitly exclude men, was very much woman-focused. While many of these spaces are vehemently transphobic, with a particular hatred and fear of trans women, this one wasn’t. I didn’t share much about myself there, but I did engage with people and heard for the first time people using she/her pronouns and describing me as a woman all without prompting.
This community kept me alive in the darkest time of my life.
I was born during the early ’90s. A time when homosexuality was still criminalised in parts of the country and when LGBTIQ people weren’t afforded the same rights as heterosexual people.
As a teenager, I didn’t have safe offline spaces; parts of my immediate family wore their homophobia as a badge of honour, and their disgust towards LGBTIQ people was palpable and often creative to a point that I needed to google the slurs.
However, I did have safe online spaces where I could connect to others without fear of being outed and being put in harm’s way. Those spaces connected me with others who helped me wash away the layers of shame and hate, reminding me that I could and would survive my family.
Now, as an adult — I find those safe online spaces becoming few and far between. Being Queer is considered explicit, inherently sexual, and often blocked from the safe search for being obscene.
During the Religious Discrimination Bill debate, it was the online spaces and community that reminded me that existence as a Queer person isn’t and shouldn’t be up for debate. Human Rights shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip for political gain, and until we have an enforceable Human Rights Charter we will never be safe.
I moved to a country town at the start of year eight: fourteen, friendless, and full of hormones. The town had a small but thriving ‘alternative’ scene nestled alongside the footy and netball clubs and Blokes and Sheilas Balls. Yet, even among the weird kids, being outwardly queer was not welcomed nor celebrated.
Being able to don a pseudonymous username or create a new avatar online allowed me to try on different versions of myself that I was afraid to embody in the physical world, which had successfully convinced me that being queer was a bad thing. Nights spent in chat rooms and hours trawling through softcore porn on Tumblr turned the fantasy of queerness into a plausible reality. Habbo Hotel was the place I first learned not to use words like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ to avoid content moderation.
I recall opening Google one night, alarmed by the elated feeling of having kissed a girl at a party (the only place you could get away with it, and dealing with the repercussions of being labelled as an attention-seeking slut felt like a small price to pay), and typing fearfully: am I gay? Later, other queries: how to come out? Is bisexuality a phase? How to deal with homophobic family members? How do I know if I am non-binary?
Even now, surrounded by wonderful queer friends IRL, the internet continues to play an essential role in my life. I cannot fathom what growing up without those spaces would mean, or perhaps worse, to have that vital time of self-discovery tracked, logged and linked to a fixed digital identity.
Online Safety For Whom?
The internet has played an essential role in our lives (and many others in LGBTIQ communities). Thank goodness the government is dedicating so much time to online safety, right? Well, not quite.
Despite what the Coalition has been saying about its desire to protect vulnerable groups online, it is all too clear that the ideology underneath the Religious Discrimination Bill seeps into their approach to regulating the internet too.
Take the Online Safety Act as an example: this widely criticised law contains overly broad take-down powers which will harm sex workers both online and off, and disproportionately impact LGBTIQ communities. Just recently, a sex-work-friendly social media platform and safe space for many queer sex workers was forced to shut down due to this, and other similar anti-sex work and anti-LGBTIQ legislation around the world. This doesn’t sound like safety to us.
As if to add insult to injury, the person in charge of these powers — the eSafety Commissioner — met with an influential far-right anti-porn organisation, and then dismissed the ensuing concerns from members of the LGBTIQ community. On top of that, the ongoing Inquiry into Social Media and Online Safety (chaired by a Liberal MP who campaigned against marriage equality and actively supported the Religious Discrimination Bill) chose to platform a transphobic app and anti-sex and anti-LGBTIQ groups but did not invite a single queer advocacy organisation to give evidence.
Those in power are also fixated on implementing age verification for access to restricted material (like porn), and removing people’s ability to be anonymous or pseudonymous online. Despite the fears of pearl-clutching pollies, research shows that queer youth often turn to porn as a counternarrative to pervasive heteronormative narratives and insufficient or exclusionary sex ed in schools. As for online pseudonyms? Heaps of queer people use them to stay safe, explore identities, and keep out of reach of physical-world violence and discrimination. We already know that ‘real name’ policies are a nightmare for many, especially trans and gender diverse people.
It doesn’t take much detective work to see that the current approach to online safety in Australia is less about actual harm reduction for vulnerable or marginalised people, and more about policing, moralism, and sanitising the internet of all content deemed to be unsavoury or deviant (spoiler: to conservatives, that means our very existence). In doing so, the Australian government is contributing to a global anti-sex movement that is sweeping the internet and silencing LGBTIQ culture.
Access to queer online spaces isn’t just about support and survival, it’s also about self-actualisation…the euphoria of not just being seen but being understood.
The decisions made by those in power about internet regulation will directly impact our collective safety and wellbeing online. If we accept the conservative proposition that online safety equates to a sanitised internet, this will inevitably result in queer online spaces becoming more highly policed. We know that policing harms many LGBTIQ folks in the physical world, and the same can be said for online spaces.
We don’t just want to reduce the harm of LGBTIQ people online, we want to be free to develop, share and enjoy queer cultures and communities. Access to queer online spaces isn’t just about support and survival, it is also about self-actualisation, joyous self-expression, and the euphoria of not just being seen but being understood.
It’s clear we cannot rely upon the current government to create a safe environment for LGBTIQ folks, online or off. But we can work together to reclaim what online safety means, and fight for an internet that can provide the kind of enriching and supportive spaces that the four of us so greatly relied upon. The safety, survival and well-being of so many in our LGBTIQ communities depend on it.
Sam Floreani is the Program Lead at Digital Rights Watch and tweets @samfloreani.
Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker is a Nyungar technologist, activist and writer who tweets @chipswoon.
Ruby Quail is a service designer, digital artist, and advocate for trans people in social design, she tweets @RubyQuailDesign.
Eliza Sorensen is a Co-founder of Assembly Four and they tweet @Zemmiph0bia.