Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Poetry, Religion, and that Pesky Paris WiFi

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I wish the war for queer rights was more like traditional ones, where we could conquer territory, plant the rainbow flag, then retire from the scene. Unfortunately, most of our battles have mixed results. And the war shows signs of lasting even longer than operation, "Mired in Afghanistan."

That being said, one perfect victory is the ascension of poet, Kay Ryan. She's an out lesbian married not once, but twice to the same woman due to California's changing marriage laws. Even better, since she wasn't named Dyke of the Year, but Poet Laureate of the United States, she's a brilliant writer, head and shoulders above the usual nominees. I'm proud to type in the same language.

On the religious front, gay Bishop Gene Robinson is standing his hallowed ground. Out of 800 Anglican prelates, he was the only one that the Archbishop of Canterbury didn't invite to the Lambeth Conference held only once a decade. Why? Protests by some African and Asian bishops who wanted to ban not only Robinson, but those perverted American bishops who consecrated him. Gays, apparently, are lower than dogs and on par with the devil.

Instead of staying home and sulking like his 200 enemies, Robinson turned up anyway, cheekily holding a service for LGBT people outside the Canterbury Cathedral as the Archbishop was inside waxing lyrical about the Anglican tradition of "Unity in diversity."

It's increasingly urgent to have people like Gene Robinson working from the inside as the Church gains ground against the State in the U.S. Both Republican and Democratic candidates are preparing to dump more money into faith-based programs, pandering shamelessly to religious fundamentalists that preach hatred of homos from their pulpits.

This weekend, that homophobia translated into a shooting in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville where an unemployed truck driver opened fire, killing two, and injuring six others, because "he hated the liberal movement; and was upset with liberals in general as well as gays."

On my own home front, I should report that somebody from the city of Paris press office belatedly returned my call requesting a comment on Paris WiFi, the free wireless program sponsored by gay mayor Bertrand Delanoe, which unfortunately has a filter blocking any page with the words, "gay" "lesbian" "gai" "goudou" etc.

The press officer, Lionel Bordeaux, energetically assured me that the intention of the recently added filter was not to discriminate, but to protect minors, that the sites mentioned in my article had been unblocked, and that Paris WiFi had been asked to consider the matter.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bordeaux also implied that the mayor couldn't discriminate because he was openly gay, that the filter wasn't really a problem because there had only been two gay-related complaints and very few pages were blocked (140,000 out of a total of 27 million hits over two weeks). And that a filter blocking gay-related words was not censorship. "We don't censor here."

If I had been able to get a word in edgewise, I would have informed Mr. Bordeaux that minorities have a long tradition of betraying each other, and besides, discrimination doesn't have to be intentional. Also, complaints are no measure of anything when it comes to discrimination against queers. To complain, you have to be "out." You have to be ready for confrontation. You have to believe something will be done. And you have to know who to complain to.

Mr. Bordeaux himself refused to identify the person responsible for the filter, or even for the wifi program. "I don't see what importance the name of this person has for a journalist." Besides, he explained, the city had contracted the program to a private company, SFR, which had subcontracted the filter, so that the city really had nothing to do with the filter.

As to censorship, I would have liked to explain that no, Paris WiFi is not censoring in the traditional sense of the word -- they're doing something much worse. It would actually be an improvement if they aspired to good old-fashioned censorship in which actual humans attack writing work by work, red-penciling phrases, or killing single articles, books, plays. Orders to blackball writers or throw them in jail likewise operate (usually) on a case-by-case basis.

As reprehensible as they are, those quaint, old-fashioned censors seem to be working with scalpels compared to Paris' bargain basement internet filter for which context is entirely irrelevant, and the inclusion of a single indiscriminate word -- "gai" "lesbiana" "goudou" -- among many others, means that whole articles, whole websites, whole categories of writers are blocked and erased no matter what they have to say.

Asserting the viability of Band-Aid fixes, like their current mechanism to unblock the World Wide Web one page at a time, reveals either a profound ignorance of the nature of discrimination, or of the Internet. Parisians deserve better.

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