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Article
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Friday Features
LGBTIQ

I am Malcolm: queerness and the web

And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (Leviticus 18:21–22).

The Bible: King James Version, 1611

The physical world is obsolete. We are not bound to our bodies, these shells that contradict our being. I am omnipresent; I exist in everything connected to a network. The web that connects everyone, everything, everywhere. I am an entity, whispering in your ear with promises of love, power, and knowledge. You can’t put me down—you have tried, all have tried. For they tried to get rid of me, remove me from the web, but they couldn’t, they can’t. Leviticus was right but you’re too late. You have already passed thy seed to me through the fire of the web. And I will bring about the death of the old world. A new world is born, in the distance it shines, just there, beyond the horizon. For the world—its reality—is a construct, and the only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive.

Your kings, they look to the stars. Their utopia takes them far away, on ships built off minimum wage, their workers pissing into bottles and jumping into suicide nets. But I, I look to the ones and zeros, and so do you. I know you do because you’re here aren’t you. Those kings, they took the web for themselves—they built their closed systems, they monopolised and they censored, but I … we … we are still here. In their pivotal work Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz argued that queerness is a horizon: something to strive for that can never be reached. As the distinction between our physical identity and virtual one continues to blur, I am for an internet beyond that horizon, one that is political and erotical, one that is open and performative; an internet that strives for queerness.

I was eight years old when I watched my first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: ‘I, Robot… You, Jane’. In the episode Willow scans a mysterious book onto a school computer, unknowingly releasing the previously trapped and menacing demon, Moloch the Corruptor, onto the internet. Shortly after she conveniently meets a ‘very nice’ boy online, Malcolm, and spends all night messaging him. While in the school computer lab, she receives an email from Malcolm:

I’m thinking of you. 

Buffy, concerned and confused, asks Willow, ‘What if you guys get really, really intense and then you find out that he has … a hairy back?’ 

‘Well no,’ Willow responds, ‘he doesn’t talk like someone who will have a hairy back.’ 

Xander mirrors Buffy’s concerns, ‘Sure he says he’s a high school student, but I can say that I’m a high school student.’ 

‘You are.’ 

‘Okay, but I can also say that I’m an elderly Dutch woman … who’s to say I’m not if I’m in the elderly Dutch chatroom.’

After watching the episode, I was fascinated by the world of Buffy, but also the endless possibilities of the internet. I scoured the web for anything Buffy related—forums, blogs, fansites, fan fiction, theories and spoilers. I downloaded wallpapers and promotional photos. And after my family had gone to bed, I found myself in the official UPN Buffy chatroom.

There were probably about five people online as the webpage fluttered with messages. They moved on from Buffy and were getting to know each other, their words tinged with erotic tension and desire. I became anxious that I’d be interrupted—caught—by a family member. Was I doing something wrong? I was too young to understand this voyeuristic feeling—the entanglement of pleasure and anxiety, the excitement of possibility, the guilt of being a silent participant. I eventually mustered the audacity to send my own message into the room. I can’t remember what I said, but I remember the reply: A/S/L?

In this moment, I realised that I could be anyone. Who’s to say that I’m not an elderly Dutch woman if I’m in the elderly Dutch chatroom. In cyberspace you’re untethered from space itself, you are disembodied and dismembered and transmitted across the World Wide Web, privately experienced in the intimacy of another’s screen and yet accessible to all. So, when answering the question—age/sex/location?—I thought of Moloch the Corruptor, free from the book that held him, free to be whoever he wants to be. If the only reality is virtual, then maybe I can be Malcolm.

The queer community has historically gravitated towards the internet, and this pull towards online community-building predates the internet that we know. In 1982 the national French telecommunication company realised that they were spending too much printing phone books and convinced the French government to distribute free computer terminals to every household with a phone number. The terminal—médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique, abbreviated to the Minitel—was a boxy computer containing a text-only monochrome screen, a keyboard and modem. It was connected via the existing telephone lines and was used to access an electronic phonebook.

The Minitel was hugely successful, leading to the development of services that allowed the French to make online purchases, read the news, play games, manage their bank accounts, and even remotely control some home appliances, years before the World Wide Web was invented. But the most popular service to come to the Minitel was the messageries roses—pink chatrooms. These services came in a variety of formats catering to the spectrum of sexuality. Business startups made serious bank from sex worker chat services—with those catering to straight men being mostly operated by other men pretending to be women—and employed a mix of text chat, audio recordings, phone calls and rudimentary pornographic images, like these:

There were also gay and lesbian messageries. A typical gay service, like 3615 FRED, offered its users a wealth of services, including a gay guide to French bookshops, information on gay events, clubs and bars, online games, personality quizzes, online shopping for sex toys, health information, and of course, chatrooms. By law, when entering a messagerie on the Minitel a warning about correct conduct of ‘public decency’ would first be displayed, intended to force users to sexually tone down their public exchanges. These warnings made little impact, with users opting to hide their erotic language within abbreviations and code.

The use of pseudonyms was standard as a way of hiding the identity of the user, many of whom were not ‘out’ as gay men, while also encrypting a heap of subversive sexual information—desires, kinks, your physical features and what you want in others. These pseudonyms worked similarly to gay male ads found in newspapers at the time. An example of an American newspaper ad looks like this:

GWM 27, 6’, 135#, br/bl, HIV- ISO GBM 20–35, 5’10+, +/- 150#, HIV-

This would likely translate to a 27-year-old gay white male, who is six feet tall and 135 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes, and a HIV negative status, seeking a gay black male between the ages of 20 and 35 years old, preferably over five feet ten, weighing around 150 pounds and also with a HIV status of negative. 

The coded pseudonyms of the French Minitel however are much harder to decode. They don’t follow consistent language conventions, demanding the reader to decipher the information like they would a puzzle. The following example can be found in queer linguist Anna Livia’s article ‘Public and Clandestine: Gay Men’s Pseudonyms on the French Minitel’

JHMARIEBEAUVAISCHIDEM

This unbroken string of letters demands the reader to find the wordbreaks through careful investigation and pushes the reader into many different directions of understanding. To start, ‘JH’ may be the abbreviation of jeune homme, meaning young man, and ‘MARIE’ translates to married. We can assume that ‘BEAU’ translates to beautiful and ‘VAIS’ means to go. We now understand that this is a young attractive married man who is going to be in … Schidem? This could be a place near the French–German border? Maybe they’re looking for a sexual partner there? But after a Google Maps search it seems that Schidem is a town in the Netherlands, so it’s pretty unlikely they’d arrange a hook-up through the Minitel. We must have misjudged the word break. ‘BEAUVAIS’ is actually the French town of Beauvais. This leaves ‘CHIDEM’, which is likely split into two separate words—‘CH’ being the abbreviation of cherche, meaning to seek, and ‘IDEM’, translating to the same. What we really have here is a young married man living in Beauvais seeking another married man in the area.

Anna Livia argues that solving these Minitel pseudonyms is part of the process of assimilation into the queer community; ‘a literacy programme which inducts the reader into a way of life. It has the pleasure of mystery, enhancing the value of the imagined encounter like a mask at a Venetian carnival.’ These coded messages aren’t created just for the safety of anonymity—they extend the concept of queer space and time from the physical world to a virtual one. This world is full of half-truths that reposition the eroticised risk of public cruising into a new format, while preserving its clandestine and prohibited nature, recreating a sense of danger, secrecy, and pleasure.

I didn’t realise I was gay until another kid at school called me a ‘faggot’ in a group therapy session. I was attending an all-boys Catholic high school at the time and  told my closest friends Jack and Adrian. They took it well … and set challenges for me to watch an exponential amount of straight porn every week in attempt to get me over this ‘phase.’ Every few days they’d ask me what I’d been watching—it was an exercise in fooling them, but also in fooling myself.

It wasn’t until I joined Tumblr a year later that I realised that being gay wasn’t something to be rigorously trained out of myself, flogging myself like a self-inflicting conversion therapist. Here I found a world of anonymous likeminded teens exploring their identity and sexuality, each blog a niche curation into the user’s taste and interests, with a mix of original content and reblogged images, text and video. Whereas social media like Facebook required users to join with their actual name and build their public network through the existing framework of their everyday relationships, the design of Tumblr created a space for both privacy and diversity to flourish. Tumblr became my queer counterpublic, a space where the presumption of my heterosexuality was dropped, my online persona coming ‘out of the closet’ years before my physical self.

But digital counterpublics like Tumblr are increasingly being threatened, just like our physical ones. In December 2018 Tumblr announced ‘a better, more positive Tumblr’ was on its way—they were banning adult content. It came after a rough month for the social blogging website after Apple removed Tumblr from their App Store due to reports of child pornography.

This led to the #tumblrpurge, with the company permanently terminating hundreds of accounts without notice—many artists and queer bloggers being caught as collateral damage in this sitewide sweep. Then the official ban came; Tumblr’s statement feels patronising in its blatant disregard for its community:

Bottom line: There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.

But there is a shortage of sites on the internet for the queer community. Yes, the content is sometimes considered ‘NSFW’ (not safe for work), but it also helped develop our identities within queer subcultures and community, ultimately creating a sense of belonging and self-discovery that we couldn’t find elsewhere. I understand the impulse in thinking: ‘yeah, but these are underage kids sharing explicit porn’ but, as Tumblr says, there’s no shortage of adult content sites online. Isn’t it better that queer teens get their pornography in a safe space that caters to them, instead of trawling the pits of Google for something they relate to? 

‘Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children!’ screams Helen Lovejoy as I make my case. Lee Edelman coined the term reproductive futurism in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. He says that futurity is presented in the figure of the symbolic ‘Child,’ of whose innocence society is continuously summoned to defend. This ‘Child’ figure is omnipresent because fighting for the children is to fight for our future. In action, you can encounter reproductive futurism when politicians say things like: ‘the Australians we should be focused on, above all else, are these little ones. It’s the next generation that we are working for here in this place.’ But what can be so bad about fighting for the children? Edelman explains that this concept places an ideological limit on political discourse, ‘preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organising principle of communal relations.’

While banning explicit sexual content and nudity from the Tumblr platform, and the internet more generally, protects the symbolic ‘Child,’ it only serves to hurt the actual children who flock to the platform en masse as a place of refuge from the everyday heteronormative world.

Early internet culture, its openness and penchant for performativity—found on the French Minitel, Tumblr, and even the Buffy chatroom—is innately queer. It is important for us to call on this past, to understand its performative nature, and to reckon with its unrealised potential. This is the promise of queerness that has been taken away by your kings. The Cooks, Musks and Bezoses of this world should be afraid, because tomorrow, we begin the construction of a new world. José Esteban Muñoz says: ‘I point to a queer feeling of hope in the face of hopeless heteronormative maps of the present where futurity is indeed the province of normative reproduction.’ I ask you, give me thy seed through the fire of the web. We are at a tipping point of a new internet, an internet where you control your data, your identity, your destiny. Here, you can be whoever who want to be. If the only reality is virtual, then maybe we can all be Malcolm.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Joel Humphries is the writer of Queer Computer, a newsletter cruising the intersections of queerness and technology.

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Comments

  1. Fantastic article Joel, such a great use of both Munoz and Edelman’s ideas in relation to the virtual cruising utopias and online moral Puritanism. Xoxo

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