Cyberspace: Empowering or Endangering of Sexual and Gender Minorities? An Overview of the Challenges Faced
"The only queer people are those who don't love anybody."
―Rita Mae Brown
The development of innovative information technologies at the dawn of the second millennium provided for new communication canals. The cyberspace has been important for sexual and gender minorities, who could interact online. Even before the 'proper' internet, the French Minitel meant for lesbian activists an opportunity to gather and take action together which was not easily made offline. The LGBTQIA+ community, feeling threatened by society, could find in the digital world a way out of the struggles they had to face on the streets.
Social media represents a cornerstone for queers' digital interactions. But while queers were gaining freedoms, others used the same social media and information technologies to chase them. As members of the LGBTQIA+ community could connect online, so could also their opponents. Thus, the question rose whether queers could feel safe in the cyberspace.
Is the dematerialisation and deterritorialization of social interactions that was made possible through the cyberspace a source of empowerment or a threat to sexual and genderminorities?
After having highlighted how the internet can empower the queer community, this article will showcase the threats it might as well represent. Finally, it will assess the role of internet governance in both the endangering and empowerment of sexual and gender minorities.
The cyberspace represents a source of personal growth for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Indeed, queer individuals can use the large online documentation to find the information they need and cannot access offline. A reason for this is the dematerialised but most of all deterritorialised nature of the internet. Queers residing in countries that might follow severe ideologies toward sexual and gender minorities might encounter difficulties in accessing proper documentation. Being borderless and global, the internet is a solution for them to educate themselves. For example, Chinese audiences can now access queer-made documentation they usually do not access in their home country - due to censure - through video-hosting platforms or social media. Queers use online documentation to inform themselves about their emerging identity as queer individuals, engage in traditional, social or experiential learning. Many of them can find in blogs and websites individuals sharing their experiences. Being part of a society that does not understand or accept them, it is important to be aware that there still are people they can relate to. The online environment is therefore a place to informally learn from queers and to teach each other about their own identities. Also, the internet provides for solutions to connect with clinicians, in order to preserve one's psychic and mental health.
A main point enhancing the empowerment of queer individuals offline is the anonymousness that is provided for online. Being anonymous means being able to share experiences and connect but also find sexual partners - without feeling anxious or restrained by the fear of being discovered and recognised. The anonymousness of the online environment creates a safe space that is necessary for queers to connect and gather.
This anonymous component of the online environment makes it possible to challenge the political establishment towards queer rights in some countries. Indeed, a new form of online queer activism emerged in the early 2000's. The fact that sexual and gender minorities can chat and gather online means that they can structurally organise in order to take action in society. Queers turned to the digital space to make political statements through cybersecurity attacks. A prominent example is the hacking that took place in 2012 against the Ridgedale Church's Facebook fanpage. The hackers were gay activists who changed its profile picture into a rainbow flag to protest against the church's statements towards gay communities. In another hack, queer activists took control over the Ugandan government's website to protest against the country's policies oppressing gay citizens.
Social media made LGBTQIA+ visible, and provided for the construction of a strong allies base. This translated in global movements such as the Human Rights Campaign marriage equality meme which consisted for allies to switch their profile pictures on social media into a rainbow flag in order to show support for marriage equality. Such actions serve to combat microaggressions and protect queers against the damages caused by daily biases and discriminations against them.
If the internet has been a source of empowerment for the LGBTQIA+ community, it may also be a cause of threats to them. Indeed, cybercrime is increasing and acts against queer individuals' right to identity in the digital space.Cybercrime is a behaviour or action that is illegal and performed online. Cyber-lawyers usually divide it into two types - internet-assisted and internet-enabled crime. The former are carried out online, the latter are a result of the use of the internet in the analogue world.
The most usual internet-assisted cybercrime experienced by queer individuals is cyberbullying. Bullying is an aggression involving a harming or disturbing behaviour - verbally or psychologically - repeated over time by a powerful agent (cis/straight) towards a less powerful one (queer) - like calling names, threatening, teasing maliciously. Most regulations and policies target bullying offline but are not effective in targeting online cyberbullying. Indeed, it is often outside of the legal reach of schools or workplaces, as it does not happen on their property, since it is online.
As internet-assisted crimes might cause psychic and mental issues to LGBTQIA+, cyber-enabled crimes have led to tremendous issues and even to death. In some countries, queers have been catfished on dating apps and beaten up to death. Geolocalisation features on dating apps such as Grindr permitted to homophobic individuals to recognise members of their neighbourhood and forced their outing.
Individuals are not the only source of danger for LGBTQIA+ online. Decision makers can use the possibilities provided for by information technologies to chase and oppress queers. Policy makers use the internet in some countries to restrict the access to queer materials and documentations or to queer intellectual and artistic works, as in China, Russia or Iran. But the states are not the only ones impacting queer individuals. Private agents can also infringe on their rights (e.g., to information) as Google banning LGBTQIA+ contents in Russia.
As queers might be endangered online, it is necessary for decision makers to make political statements protecting them. The rights they are entitled to in the real world should effectively be enforced online. Internet governance must be used to protect members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Internet governance involves the administration of the technical infrastructure on which the internet functions. Decisions intending to change this administration impact on the whole web. The administration of domain names and internet addresses is globally unified under the supervision of the ICANN. The TLD, being the ending of domain names in '.xxx', enables the filtering of certain types of contents (e.g., depending on their geographical position). The debate whether a '.gay' or '.lgbt' domains should be created in order to centralise the LGBTQIA+ expression is one of internet governance that has a direct impact on queer individuals.
The field of internet governance is a control point over queer rights and freedoms such as freedom of speech, identity expression and association.  Internet governance decisions are technical, political and legal decisions impacting on queer cyber-rights. As a matter of fact, it is essential for decision makers to take into consideration sexual and gender minorities when regulating the cyberspace, in order not only to not infringing their rights, but to protect and empower them.
To conclude, the innovations in the field of ICT have been a great opportunity for sexual and gender minorities and empowered them significantly. At the same time, it provided for the same opportunities to their opponents, using these canals to attack them both online and offline. State oppressions have also been simplified by the internet, and internet governance decisions can act on queer individuals in both positive or negative. This being said, it is essential for decision makers, both governmental and private, to take sexual and gender minorities into consideration when making internet governance policies, in order to protect them from infringements.
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