I recently finished a six-year doctoral research project on online discrimination against LGBTIQ people in my home country, Argentina. I studied discriminatory representations of LGBTIQ folk in blog comments between 2012 and 2015, right after the approval of same-sex marriage and gender identity bills.
My research shows that negative portrayals endured, and LGBTIQ people were still associated with ideas of perversion, sickness and deviance.
Three recurrent discourses in this sort of online commentary were identified in the research. One was the belief that freedom of speech allows for the publication of all sorts of texts, no matter what they say. Freedom of speech, sometimes intertwined with freedom of religion, was used to criticise the erasure of hateful comments by blog moderators, labelling this process as censorship. The underlying belief was that the internet is meant to be 'the land of the free', and that any restrictions on online commentary – even the most hateful instances – are undemocratic.
A second discourse involved the idea that children must be protected from the 'menace' posed by LGBTIQ people, who were perceived as pushing laws to teach in schools that being gay or trans is 'good' and being straight or cis is 'bad'. This exaggerated concern was often conflated with the notion that gays and lesbians are 'perverts' and 'paedophiles'. Thus, innocent children were deemed to be in need of protection from those same-sex couples who wanted to give them a home and a family.
The last and most salient discourse featured the representation of LGBTIQ people as discriminatory and violent, spreading hatred towards religious people. LGBTIQ people were also 'selfish', as they made 'insane' requests to satisfy their egos and their 'greed'. When they retaliated against homophobic or transphobic insults and slurs, their behaviour was presented as 'proof' of their 'aggressive and intolerant nature'.
Some other forms of online discrimination were rather creative. For example, some talked about a 'gay lobby', formed by promoters of a radical 'gender ideology'. Others labelled LGBTIQ people as a threat to society – as they 'strive to jeopardise traditional moral and religious values'. LGBTIQ people were perceived as seeking to impose their views on others and make 'abnormal things' seem 'normal'.
My experience over the course of this project was not an easy one – there was nothing fun in reading thousands of malicious and hurtful comments. I cannot put my finger on which of the confronting remarks I read over the course of the research made me most uncomfortable. Was it the fact that these comments targeted LGBTIQ people in LGBTIQ-friendly online spaces? Paradoxically, blatant hateful language and commentary was often easier to disregard than more subtle forms of discrimination and abuse disguised within discourses of equality and tolerance.
More broadly, my research has made me aware that online commentary offers a rich and accurate snapshot of the fears and anxieties of a society in a particular context. I found that in Argentina, LGBTIQ people were sometimes used as scapegoats; blamed for broader social issues such as moral decay, lack of social cohesion, or the enduring financial crisis. They were reprimanded for asking for recognition of their rights, because there were other 'more urgent' and 'more important' social issues to tackle.
My hunch is that this situation does not only apply to Argentina. Australia has witnessed a spout of this sort of rhetoric, especially during the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey. Hearing from activists and scholars and following local media, I fear that even in the land of the 'fair go', LGBTIQ people are treated as second-class citizens.
Discrimination doesn’t always come in the form of hate speech – it can be subtle and creative. It is also pervasive; it may be found in the comments section of a blog or the news, in opinion pieces or in personal or political tweets. Even when they promote acceptance and equality, some narratives can be accompanied by subtle differentiation that is detrimental to the enjoyment of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of LGBTIQ people.
Days such as the upcoming International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT) should not be the only occasion in which we worry about this group, and the issues they face. At school, at work, online, or even with your mates, don’t be a bystander and speak up. Educate yourself, show your support for the rights of our LGBTIQ folk, and be the change this world needs.
Magalí Perez Riedel holds a Doctorate in Communication. Magali is the author of Género y Diversidad Sexual en el Blog Boquitas Pintadas [Gender and Sexual Diversity in the Blog Bloquitas Pintadas] (2014) and the editor of Trans Representation on Television and Film (forthcoming). She collaborates in some research with Dr Francisco Perales at UQ’s Institute for Social Science Research.
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