When Internet Filters Think LGBTQ+ Websites Are Porn, Queer Kids Suffer

Photographed by Nicole Maroon.
When I was 16, I spent a lot of time in the tiny, windowless loft above my bedroom, contemplating why my brother going out with *Bea Lewis made me so jealous. Three years later, fully understanding that I was a lesbian, I sat in that loft again, pouring through the LGBTQ+ advice site Everyone Is Gay. I read page after page of advice from veteran gays Kristin Russo and Danielle Owens-Reid who answered questions like "How do I find out for sure that she likes girls?" and "Would it be bad to come out to my mom via email?" Russo and Owens-Reid, who founded Everyone Is Gay, always had insightful, kind, and often funny responses to questions that LGBTQ+ kids sent to them. As a closeted gay teen in Oklahoma, reading their advice to other LGBTQ+ kids made me feel less isolated, even if their questions had nothing to do with me.
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But not every queer kid is able to find that kind of help online, because they might not be able to see LGBTQ+ websites at all. Content filtering software used at home or on public computers (like those at schools and libraries) sometimes mark Everyone Is Gay and other LGBTQ+ resource websites as pornography, and block them from the eyes of people who might need them most. In fact, Russo herself was recently blocked from accessing Everyone Is Gay on a library computer in California.
While Everyone is Gay does have a "doin' it" section to answer questions from people who are anxious about having sex, it clearly isn't pornography. But the people who set up content filters are sometimes overzealous and mark any site that includes words like "gay," "lesbian," or "bisexual" as inappropriate, says James LaRue, director of the American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom. The assumption is that because at it's basic definition being queer is about sexual (or romantic) desire, it's safest to just forbid any websites using those words.
But that assumption causes problems for closeted queer kids, because it can stop them from finding the resources they need to explore their sexualities and connect to a greater LGBTQ+ community. And it's especially troubling for LGBTQ+ kids who might be using public computers to ask questions about being gay because they don't feel safe or comfortable doing it at home.
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So they say, 'Oh this is gay stuff, that must be about sex' and then they're flipping all of these switches that they weren't even required to flip.

James LaRue, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom
Those kids who might turn to computers at their schools or local libraries often hit roadblocks to accessing information. While schools and libraries aren't required by law to block LGBTQ+ web content (in fact, they're required by law not to block it), LaRue says it sometimes happens because people are worried about causing controversy. Schools, especially, don't want to cause a stir if parents learn that their children are able to look up anything about sex while on school grounds, so they over-filter to be safe. And in the case of libraries, it's often not the librarian who's flipping the switches on content filtering software, LaRue says. It's an IT person. "They don't really know what needs to be blocked, which is just images that are child pornography, obscene, or harmful to minors," he says. "And so they say, 'Oh this is gay stuff, that must be about sex' and then they're flipping all of these switches that they weren't even required to flip."
And it's been happening for decades, LaRue says. In 2001 an organization called the Free Expression Policy Project found that the most popular filtering software at the time, called CyberSitter, blocked almost every gay and lesbian website. In 2009, the group noticed that schools in Tennessee were blocking LGBTQ+ websites on school computers, but were not blocking websites that advocated conversion therapy (the idea that someone can be turned straight), LaRue says. While filtering software has gotten better since then, it's still not good, he says, and it is still being misused.
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In cases where filters aren't intentionally misused, librarians and school officials can adjust the filters if someone alerts them to a website that's been unfairly blocked. But the people who are most likely to be looking for LGBTQ+ resources online aren't the people most likely to report when they can't access them. "Often, it's somebody who's one of our most fragile populations. You have people who are so freaked out about the fact that they're gay and they're not getting support for that," LaRue says. "So they start to search online, and if they find that they're blocked, they are not going to call and complain about it."
And, even if someone does complain, it takes a few days for content filtering systems to make adjustments, which is another problem with filtering software, LaRue says. Because of censorship issues like these, the ALA doesn't recommend filtering at all. "Almost all the time, it's way better to respond if somebody is looking at something that's flagrantly sexual or graphic in nature and to tell them to knock it off," LaRue says. "It's better to deal with people who misbehave than try to do this electronic method that winds up being very discriminatory and does result in censorship."
Yet, some libraries and schools that receive state funding are required to apply filters. So, in those cases, LaRue's team works with library staff to teach them how to avoid unnecessary censorship. And, for people who notice censorship at their local libraries, the ALA has a way to report censorship online. Then LaRue's office can contact the library to ask what happened. "Sometimes, just enough outside pressure makes them say, 'Oops, this was a mistake,'" he says. "'We shouldn't have done that.'"
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
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