gay internet hopes

One theme that has recurred while teaching intro to LGBTQ studies this term is the hope that my students place in the Internet in order to “fix” the problems of queer culture. Two particular problems were addressed with what I want to call “gay Internet hopes”: the attack on public sex cultures, and the attack on queer cultural memory.

We read work by Charles Morris III, Chris Castiglia, and Chris Reed this term about queer memory: all three authors brought up the incessant cultural attacks on gay and queer collective memory. Morris, in his discussion of rhetorical responses to claims that Lincoln was gay, outlines the “mnemonocide” influeced by homosexual panic of historians. Castiglia and Reed, in discussing the memory work of Will and Grace mention the virulent attacks on gay memory, including the prevention of education on queer history in school, the objections to designations of gay neighborhoods, the ways mainstream presses stress generational differences among gays, the focus in mainstream press on martyrs like Harvey Milk (at the expense of other aspects of gay history), and calls for breaks from the past. Castiglia especially explores this call for a break from the past in his discussion of how queers remember the 70s, explaining how collective memories influence our sexual consciousness and how “willed amnesia” toward the past might be harmful for creating new ways of relating to each other.

My students, who have little knowledge of queer history (this isn’t a history course, though at times I wish I had included more historical work to build up a deeper, complex shared history), were disturbed by the attacks on gay history. One of them expressed that “our history is broken.” And then we had the wonderful question in class: What can we do? We had a fairly good conversation for the rest of class about different things that students here at Penn State could do, and about what larger culture could do.

As we discussed, I couldn’t remember the exact year that Matthew Shepherd was murdered. I didn’t really think it mattered in the moment, but a student looked it up on his cell phone, which I applaud. But then a student made the observation: with the Internet, where we can look everything up in a second, do we need to discuss history? Can’t we just look it up?

I was disturbed by this reduction of history and memory work to mere information and facts, and I countered that memory is used and deployed and shared, not just information. Memory is about the stories we share to build collective identities, collective potentials and futures, and a shared sense of selves. This might be possible in Internet forums, but not if we view history as just information.

The other situation came a week or two later, as we discussed Michael Warner’s work and his explanation of the attack by NYC zoning laws, health codes, mainstream gays, and others who want to clean up public spaces, making sex publics harder to access through isolating themselves from each other, making the harder to find, and closing places down. This makes not only information about sex harder to find, but also has the added effect of destroying other public venues: when queers go somewhere for sex or information about sex, eventually a quantitative change leads to a qualitative change: other people come to the public place as well, and a vibrant public with many different types of people can share a space and interact with each other.

A few of my students were disturbed by this but quickly expressed gay Internet hope: If I can get porn, learn about sex, and find sex toys online, do we really need these sex publics in physical spaces? Which misses the point that Warner makes that this is not just about sex, but about queer world building.

Clearly, if you know me, I’m a huge fan of the Internet, but I’m concerned about how it is viewed and used at this point: language like “information technologies,” the “information superhighway,” etc. have the effect of making the Internet a sort of place where information is retrieved, not where people congregate to create worlds. I am doubtful that the Internet offers the type of forum that allows for the type of memory work and queer world building that public more physical spaces might, though I do believe those potentials exist in some ways online. Mostly, I’m concerned about a larger issue: the reduction of culture, memory, and shared experiences to information and information access. We don’t have to know because we can find out; History is information, not shared experience; My sexual interests are private and can be explored through a screen, rather than worthy of being explored and shared in public spaces.

Not that this is a “gay” problem, but rather speaks to larger cultural logics. My concern here in this post is particularly about queer culture building and queer memory work, but could easily be expanded to incorporate a larger concern I am developing about our “culture” as a whole: the reduction of lived and shared experiences to information and information retrieval.

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