It was 1996 when my friends and i started getting attacked online for being queer. Before that, in our niche of the cyberworld, we were invisible to everyone but ourselves. It was a public space, welcoming to all queer folks. It was a safe space by the virtue of shared values, ideas and the underlying goal of supporting one another. There were no walls; it was safe through underlying social norms. But it was destroyed because rigid barriers are necessary to keeping hate outside.
We eventually escaped to the eGroups of the world before fading into oblivion. In 2001, i popped into various queer communities, talking to youth about their experiences online. They recalled stories that horrified me. Stories of older men preying on them, stories of the Christian right telling them that they were going to hell. Always on the search for safe space, these kids didn’t have what i valued so much about the online world in high school: inadvertent safe space, simply by being, sharing, supporting. Even in gay.com, they felt afraid. This saddened me.
I’m in awe of the networks of queer LJs that i see. I know that i don’t see all because much of what is shared is for friends-only, but it gives me great joy to realize that kids are finding new ways to construct semi-public safe space and support one another through the process of grappling with one’s identity. Yet, i know that what i see is only a limited segment of the digital queer youth. I wonder how kids feel about coming out online now, how they find that safe space, how they create friend groups out of nothing. It was so much easier in the 90s. All you needed was access to IRC, Usenet or BBSs. Of course, only a fraction of kids were online then.
When we started getting attacked, i felt the need to defend us, to maintain the safe space. But online, speaking to your attackers is like speaking to a blank wall. You can’t possibly defend yourself because they’re against you at their very core. Topics like queer identity and abortion will never go anywhere online. People aren’t willing to hear one another. Eventually, i gave up, exhausted, saddened, depressed. Since then, i haven’t engaged in debates online; i’ve only lurked. When i wrote to a mailing list, it was almost always neutral material: information about an event, a reference, whatever.
And then, my journals became blogs and read by an audience that i don’t know. And i got invited to help out with other blogs. Suddenly, i had to address a flurry of email and comments about what i wrote. Most of it was curious, supportive. But then again, it was rather unbiased. Yet, every time i write anything with an opinion on it, or truly want to work out a dilemma, i get attacked or the ideas do. I can take it far more when the ideas are attacked, but i truly hate the anonymous emails telling me that i’m a terrible person.
I continue to be reminded that blogging is not a safe space for me. There’s no common understanding, common ground. Even when i build up the gall to post what’s on my mind, i’m deconstructed based on what’s not said. My blog is not an academic paper. I’m not reflexively positioning myself every time i post. I’m not fleshing out all of that which i feel should be assumed simply because this is MY blog, MY post. I take a lot for granted and i only wish that people would realize that these posts are constructed in the context of me. I’m not trying to be a journalist; i’m not trying to address an unknown population from an unknown position. I’m trying to share my thoughts, ideas, life from my perspective.
While i may feel attacked here, in my own digital home, i feel outright demolished at misbehaving. Unlike many group blogs, this one has an identity. It’s a blog about women and tech. It’s a blog by women involved in tech. It’s a blog by thinking women who think, say, and create far more than a few posts a month on the site. There is an unspoken context. These are things that i take for granted. I try to keep posts short, but in doing so, i fail to lay out the framework and thus i’m attacked both for what i say and what i don’t say. Instead of creative suggestions, “perhaps you forgot this,” i usually see you’re wrong/foolish/inappropriate. Sometimes i wonder if we created misbehaving as a tool to increase our masochistic lashings. It’s certainly not a forum for interesting conversation in a safe space.
One thing that we’re missing as disconnected souls reading each other’s words is a shared social structure where we can intuitively understand when to critique and when to support. The blog world too easily lends itself to a forum for attacking each other, purportedly to critique ideas. How often are anonymous critiques truly constructive? How easy is it to tear apart someone you don’t know? Stanley Milgram learned that ages ago… if you feel like your responsibility is to critique, you can do so infinitely, regardless of how another might feel. And the further removed you are from witnessing the horrific reactions, the more you can continue on. Sometimes, i think we’re all a bit sadistic.
But it truly saddens me that blogs aren’t safe space. They don’t sit in a context; they don’t have a set of shared norms. And sometimes, it’s just simply not fun to constantly fight for the right to speak from your own perspective. It’s in moments like this where i remember why some people have no desire to speak up, no desire to fight. I remember asking my mum why she didn’t run for office; she laughed and reminded me that not just anyone is willing to be put through the ringer for the chance to spend every day being hated.
I continue to reconsider whether or not i should blog, or if i should only post uncontroversial material. While i’ve met some amazing people this way, i’ve also seen the increase in my insecurity about sharing what i know. Yet, often, my attackers are anonymous and i should know not to take them seriously. I can intellectually tell myself that it is foolish to let them affect me, but anonymous attackers hurt my soul even more so than actual people. With actual people, i can have a conversation, attempt reason, understand where they’re coming from. Anonymous attacks are just there, unable to be addressed personally, unable to find resolution in me. I will never forget the girl who asked me why i blogged, why i wanted to be a public target? I still can’t answer her.
“why can’t all decent men and women
call themselves feminists?
out of respect
for those who fought for this” – Ani DiFranco