Tim Cook (the Apple CEO) was hailed as inspirational when he came out as gay last month, and told he would save lives. He was turned into the world’s most powerful gay overnight (sorry Ellen). His simple act of coming out was proclaimed as a ‘radical manifesto’ in a year where Brendan Eich’s $1000 donation to anti-gay marriage campaigns in California drove his resignation as Mozilla CEO, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game renews interest in the British state’s hounding of the WW2 codebreaker. But this comes amidst increased pressures on LGBTQ online spaces and the misogyny perpetuated by the Gamergate movement. Within this context, what would a truly radical manifesto look like?
The internet offered a lifeline for a queer culture so battered by AIDS. The ‘plague’ shut down many bathhouses and bars that had provided essential meeting points for gay and bisexual men. The internet created opportunities for new spaces though, for people to be simultaneously anonymous and ‘out’. But this space is currently threatened by a lack of ‘net neutrality’, endorsed by the European Parliament but not in the US. This requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ensure equal access instead of prioritising sites that have the resources to pay for faster access. One reason LGBTQ online spaces are vulnerable is the costs of different rates of access would be prohibitive for smaller LGBT sites, particularly if negotiating with just one ISP. The other big factor is ISPs can block websites on the basis of ‘homosexual content’.
When BT presented UK householders with the option to filter, ostensibly pornographic, content last year, queer and/or trans people pointed out that almost any LGBTQ resources could fall into this category – indeed BT used to block gay networks in the 1990s. BT presented this as a neutral option – as not explicitly designed to block gay content. But it isn’t a neutral option when queer and/or trans teenagers can’t access sex ed that accounts for all sexualities and genders – unlikely to hear relevant narratives from their parents. While it’s easy to say porn warps teenagers’ perceptions of sex, it is still a more educational tool for queer teenagers than sex ed in schools right now.
Another issue is that internet privacy is critical for queer and/or trans people. While Cook’s individual coming out is celebrated, a failure to enact net neutrality may prevent more being safely ‘out’. The mainstream LGBTQ movement believes that coming out is the most radical act because it adds numbers, and because the goal is ‘changing opinions, not realities’. The attitude is that if every queer and/or trans person were out, it would eradicate bigotry. To be ‘out’ is to be open to the wealth and power Mr. Cook has – without thinking about how wealth inequality restricts people’s choices.
Amidst these limited choices, queer and/or trans people have to balance two competing rights: the right to privacy vs. the right to tell your story. Requiring people to be out as strategy is dangerous and ignores people’s often complex realities – as well as increased internet surveillance. But the right to tell one’s story is crucial in protecting autonomous LGBTQ spaces online. This was seen recently with Facebook’s changed naming policy forcing people to register their ‘real name’ – potentially endangering drag acts and trans people. It is the relative anonymity of the internet that has allowed trans people to form autonomous communities. Trans people are understandably more suspicious of registration, having to jump endless bureaucratic hurdles in GP surgeries and passport offices.
Meanwhile, the misogynistic energy unleashed by the Gamergate movement has a detrimental impact on LGBTQ online spaces – particularly harassment and rape threats targeting queer and/or trans women. Allegedly targeting gaming journalists’ ethics, it has instead forced many self-identified women in gaming out of their homes. While this misogyny also affects queer and/or trans men, there is a clear gendered divide: 48% of gamers are self-identified women, but only 15% of game characters are. Additionally, 44% of internet users believe gaming is more welcoming to men and only 3% for self-identified women – a starker divide than any other online space; 63% of women gamers report online harassment, forcing 9.6% to quit certain games permanently.
But this also underlines greater concerns about the tech industry’s sexism – US men managers earn $98,000 on average compared to $86,000 for women managers. Part of the answer to gaming misogyny has to be policies that dismantle tech industry sexism: self-identified women’s right to be in gaming spaces will be continuously questioned as long as Wired is listed as a ‘men’s magazine’ at supermarkets. There are promising attempts at redressing tech industry sexism. Despite the ‘Shirtgate’ controversy following the Rosetta landing illustrating the problem of unexamined sexism in science and tech, half of new NASA astronaut recruits are self-identified women; universities like UCL are experimenting with fully funded bursaries and childcare at Masters’ level to foster more women engineers.
The praise offered to Tim Cook – or declaring Benedict Cumberbatch an ‘ally’ for playing Alan Turing – appears rather narrow. It is based on the idea of Mr. Cook as a lone innovator. But as with Steve Jobs, one man is not responsible for innovation: progress is incremental and collaborative. Talking about Mr. Cook saving lives is detached from Apple’s record of 60-hour plus weeks, environmental violations, and dozens of suicides in Foxconn factories in China. Those globalised workers form part of a ‘diverse’ Apple workforce, but are an uncomfortable demographic for nominal progressives in Silicon Valley. Removing Brendan Eich or installing Mr. Cook will not create ‘safe’ workplaces or spaces. The focus must instead be removing the larger barriers to queer and/or trans people – and self-identified women – online and in tech.