Homophobosphere

An environment created by antigay postings on Internet blogs that spreads hate, produces fear, and is still protected by free speech.

BY Will Doig

January 25 2008 12:00 AM ET

Though he says
getting gay-bashed on the street—something
he’s experienced often—can be withering,
being bashed in your comments section by dozens of
homophobes trying to outdo each other with vitriol causes a
unique form of shell shock. The frightening, mob-like,
torches-and-pitchforks effect can seem more personal than a
random public bashing. Says Sledd: “It really
took a toll on me.”

While growing
popularity can attract more homophobes, it also helps drown
them out, says Michael Buckley, host of a Talk
Soup–ish web series called What the Buck?
“You get ‘faggot’ all day,” he
says. “You get, ‘I’d like to put
a gun to this person’s head,’ things about
Jesus hating gay people, things about being an AIDS
chaser. There’s tons of hatred. But now that
I’m a bit more popular, I get so many more positive
comments, and people who write nice things about me
write mean things back to [the homophobes], so the
hate speech has really slowed down.”

Such is the crux
of the argument made by free-speech absolutists:
Unfiltered comments sections allow debate to flourish, and
other commentators will organically shut down
homophobes. Call it free-market tolerance.
“Comments sections of blogs, like blogs themselves,
offer a space where people can challenge stereotypes
and push others to exchange ideas rather than
slurs,” says Marc McCarthy, senior director of
communications for GLAAD. Aden Fine, a senior staff attorney
for the ACLU, an organization that sometimes finds
itself in the sticky position of defending hate
speech, agrees. “In traditional media like newspapers
or TV, if you’re offended, you can’t voice
your opinions very easily,” says Fine.
“People are now familiar with the Internet, and they
know that you have to take everything with a grain of
salt. But what makes the Internet a valuable place for
people to communicate is that ability to respond and
to voice opinions directly and without any cost.”

Traditional media
outlets are more likely to filter comments on their
websites. While YouTube doesn’t filter or edit
antigay feedback on William Sledd’s posts for
Ask a Gay Man, Bravo’s website does. “YouTube
is, and always has been, a forum for free
expression,” says YouTube spokesperson Kathleen
Fitzgerald. ”Our community is made up of millions
of people across the world and is diverse racially,
ethnically, politically, religiously, as well as in
terms of sexual orientation.” Bravo
didn’t respond to requests for details about its
online policies.

Perhaps
surprisingly, both Sledd and Michael Buckley said they
wouldn’t want their comments filtered, even if
YouTube offered. For one thing, YouTube users are able
to filter and delete the comments on their posts
themselves, and YouTube can terminate the accounts of
commentators who receive complaints (though Sledd
points out that offenders can set up a new account in
minutes). Still, “if you’re going to put
something out there on a blog or video,” says
Buckley, “you have to allow people to
comment.”

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