Though the privacy concerns related to the internet do not pose a direct threat to the livelihood of many of us, LGBT individuals (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) face some specific challenges. Like those families hiding from an abusive relative or criminal, many queers feel or have the need to protect their personal information online for fear of physical or emotional harm. Many of these fears relate to continued cultural taboos and hostile attitudes toward homosexuality.
Being “in the closet” – concealing one’s queer sexual/gender identity from others – can be important for many real or perceived dangers. In communities that lack employer discrimination protections for LGBT individuals, staying “in the closet” can protect stable jobs (and healthcare by extension). LGBT youth often fear retribution from family or friends including but not limited to losing close relationships, bullying, and being kicked out of their home. For those in countries which outlaw homosexuality, protecting one’s sexuality can be a matter of life or death.
Although these concerns existed before the existence of the internet, the new technology of the web poses more threats to the unwanted “outing” – disclosure of an individual’s sexual/gender orientation – of LGBT people. These threats extend beyond ever-changing social networking privacy policies like “public by default.” Below I will discuss two examples demonstrating the misuse of this new technology.
Tyler Clementi Suicide
In September 2010, 18 year old Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his Rutgers University roommate Dharun Ravi used a live streaming webcam to spy on him. After spying on one sexual encounter, Ravi planned to use his webcam to stream to a larger audience during a second event. In Ravi’s own words posted to Twitter:
9/19/2010: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
9/21/2010: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
Though the second attempt was not successful (whether or not Clementi or Ravi disabled the webcam is unclear), it clearly impacted Clementi. A day later he committed suicide. After being convicted of charges of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering, and evidence tampering (he later deleted the above tweets), Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 300 hours of community service, and a $10,000 fine.
New web technologies have the ability to provide support to LGBT youth by connecting them with larger communities, but these same tools can be used to harm. Cyberbullying can be particularly harmful to LGBT youth who are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Many see the Clementi case as a wake-up call for stronger ethics education in regards to web technologies.
Islamist Honor Killing
Since the invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, violent crimes against the LGBT community are on the rise. The secular state created by Hussein (previously regarded as one of the more liberal middle eastern countries) is now controlled by Islamist groups uninterested in protecting queer interests. Individuals are often threatened, kidnapped, tortured, killed, and their bodies mutilated. The number of these killings is estimated at over 680 (2004-2009).
Because the religion of Islam explicitly condemns homosexuality, many of these killings are unpunished and even celebrated. The term “honor killing” is used to describe these murders which will cleanse the family of the sins. As such, many families commit these crimes themselves or hire others to perform them.
The internet is being used as a tool to locate LGBT individuals. In a culture unfriendly to LGBT rights the internet can be an effective shelter and community building tool, but again we can see the misuse of the web. Highly educated extremists are monitoring chat rooms and profiles of gay websites in search of their next target. They will often pose as friends in order to lure them into public or to learn their true identities and locations. This has LGBT people who were already afraid to leave their homes afraid to connect with their peers on the internet.
Protecting Your Friends
Although the above cases are extreme, you can see that the decision to “come out of the closet” is a very personal decision that can bear penalties as well as rewards. If you are friends with an LGBT individual, you may want to take a moment to ask about their privacy concerns. I’ll just go ahead and assume you would never stream webcam footage of any sexual encounters they might have, but other private moments are not so clear. Do they want people to know they are a member of a queer alliance group? Would they want you to post a picture of them holding hands with someone of the same gender? Would they want you to tweet them information about new gay marriage legislation? Some may care and others may not – but let’s leave that up to them.