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Internet Censorship and LGBT Issues

Last week, two stories concerning possible censorship on the internet were big issues in the LGBT world.

By now, you have probably heard about the uproar at Amazon, the online retailer which sells everything from books to appliances.  Over Easter weekend, people began noticing that LGBT-themed books were classified as “adult material,” meaning their ratings were removed and in some cases were not showing up using Amazon’s search function.  Among the titles that were affected were some of the most acclaimed books in the LGBT canon, including Heather Has Two Mommies, The City And The Pillar, Giovanni’s Room, The Well Of Loneliness, and The Front Runner.  Non-fiction titles like Running With Scissors, Celluloid Closet, and Biological Exuberance were equated with porn as well.  The complete list of books can be viewed at

Due to Amazon’s power as the dominant seller of books, single-handedly responsible for the closure of independent bookstores, many people demanded an explanation for what was happening.  The company said it was a “glitch” caused by an employee in France, but a hacker also claimed responsibility for the incident, while others have suggested it was motivated by Amazon’s homophobia and only customer vigilance kept LGBT literature from disappearing.  At this point, we will probably never know the full story.

Glitchgate is an example of the pitfalls of relying too much on online businesses at the expense of local establishments that have real accountability to their customers. While whatever happened with Amazon was quickly resolved, I don’t believe a local store would have found itself in a similar situation in the first place. Call me naïve, but I think independent stores respect (and depend on) their customers too much to risk offending them like Amazon has done to millions of people.

While Glitchgate was covered by many papers, there was a local story about what is considered “appropriate” on the internet that I feel deserves more attention.

An April 16 story in the Tennessean reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is giving Metro schools until April 29 to detail a plan to allow students access to sites releated to LGBT issues. Currently, the school system uses filtering software from a company called Education Networks of America which prevents students from visiting the pages of organizations like Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD),  Marriage Equality USA, and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Unsurprisingly, the school system and software manufacturer are reluctant to accept responsibility for the situation.  The schools say it is a default setting that cannot be changed, Education Networks of America claims each customer decides which sites to block.

One reason they may be passing the buck is because they want to avoid the explosive issue of children and (homo)sexuality. Institutions that deal with children – think youth groups, schools, or sports teams – are encouraged to be noncommital or downright hostile wherever LGBT people are concerned, lest they be accused of “teaching” or condoning” homosexuality. Frantic parents responded to the Tennessean article by claiming they have a right to “protect” their kids from LGBT references, even though nobody has suggested teachers are forcing students to do reports on the local chapter of HRC.

These people seem to think children live in a world devoid of desire or sexual impulses until sometime in their teenage years, when they suddenly embrace the welcoming arms of heterosexuality.  Yet some scientific research suggests that most kids have their first crush at 10 years old, and you don’t have to be a scientist to see that children are identifying as LGBT younger than ever before.  There are over 100 Gay-Straight Alliances in middle schools, and that number is expected to rise in coming years.

If you were one of the millions of LGBT people who did not grow up in an environment where acceptance of non-heterosexuality was a given, you can understand why a child may want to visit PFLAG’s site while at school.  They could be questioning, trying to figure out how to come out, or even supporting a friend who is struggling with their  sexuality.  I got nearly all of my initial information about being gay from the scant resources in my school library.  I certainly would have loved to have the internet in the 1980s!

These kids may not have an adult they can trust to discuss the situation with an open mind. They may not have access to a computer at home. In any event, is it fair to declare that information about LGBT rights is dangerous material to be hidden from children?  I think not.

I am eagerly awaiting Metro’s response to the ACLU and will keep you informed in future columns.

From “Blackout” for 4/20/09 by Anthony Rucker


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