For many of us, the Internet offers limitless opportunities for enhancing our lives. We can catch up on news, shop for whatever our hearts desire, connect with our friends. The world at our fingertips—and in our pockets.
For some, though, the Internet provides more than pleasurable diversion. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, the web can offer information of critical importance to their very existence, information sometime unavailable elsewhere. For many in the LGBT community, online access has become the ultimate lifeline.
That message is beginning to gain attention, thanks in part to Microsoft researcher Mary L. Gray (@maryLgray). This summer, Gray and Jessie Daniels, a professor at the City University of New York, published a paper called Vision for Inclusion: An LGBT Broadband Future that argues for the steps that must be taken to ensure that online resources remain available for a segment of the population that dearly needs them.
Congressman Mike Honda, D-Calif., used that paper last month in leading an effort that included fellow members of the U.S. Congress and 20 LGBT and ally organizations to ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to halt blocking of online LGBT resources at federally funded schools and libraries. It’s more than a hollow effort, given that Honda is the founder and chair of the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus.
Gray, author of the 2009 book Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, has witnessed firsthand the effects of young people in rural Appalachia being denied access to LGBT-related resources.
“During my fieldwork for my most recent book,” says Gray, also an associate professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, “I regularly met young people who were unable to find basic, LGBT-specific health information in their communities. When I asked them about searching online for that information, without exception they said that they couldn’t go online at school because their school accounts were heavily monitored. They also said that the few times they looked up information at local libraries, they received notices that the information was not available because the site had been blocked.
“In communities with limited resources for going online—more than 40 percent of households share a personal computer, and even fewer have broadband in their homes—lack of access is a public-health issue, not just a lost opportunity to shop.”
Gray then sketched a specific scenario that could and does block people from access to top-priority online resources.
“A young person coming out in the rural U.S. will not have physical access to an LGBT-specific organization,” she cites, “let alone one with youth resources. They need to be able to go online and find resources like “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” or “Gay Men’s Health Crisis” or “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.” Right now, all of those nonprofit organizations can be or are routinely blocked, by default, when working with commercial filters sold throughout the world.”
The paper by Daniels and Gray makes a strong case for guaranteeing access to online LGBT resources, using facts such as that 80 percent of LGBT people in the United States participate in a social network, as opposed to 58 percent of the general public; that those individuals use the web to seek information on health, health-care providers, parenting, prevention, support networks, housing, and jobs; and that those individuals can require help in combatting cyberbullying.
The paper also lists seven policy recommendations that could help assuage the current constrained access to such needed resources, nudging the discussion closer to a resolution that takes LGBT concerns about Internet access into account.
“Success would look like the FCC setting guidelines for what filtering companies can and cannot filter by default,” Gray concludes. “There should be a list of words like ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ and ‘transgender’ that are allowed, just as we allow ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in any search.”