Over the Rainbow
Abstract: Numerous scholars have observed that identity on the internet is entirely reliant upon text, images, sounds, or other symbolic conventions, such as "emoticons." Nina Wakeford (2000) has pointed out that anonymity or a lack of face-to-face cues suggests that coming out may be easier on-line; her suggestion is that online "coming out" is transforming the meaning of being gay. In this essay I examine the ways in which sexuality is enacted through the use of the internet, and conclude that digital technologies such as instant messaging and virtual chats have further enabled the development of gay, and by extension, bisexual, and transgender, identities.
In an age of digital media and internet culture, technology is radically transforming society and the ways in which we think about methods of communication. Through instant messaging and webchats, internet users are able to access other users via textual messages. These new forms of media have come to embrace culture in distinct ways, as they have come to connect people of varying regions, classes, sexualities, or ethnicities. While instant messaging and cyberchats are similar to activities in the real world, such as a phone conversation or a coffeehouse meeting, they are the primary ways in which identity gets constructed in the virtual world.
Identity on the internet is entirely reliant upon text, images, sounds, and emoticons. Such media helps users devise an identity on the internet in a manner in which often allows them to experience an aspect of themselves otherwise inaccessible to them. This is often the case with socially marginalized groups. The internet allows a certain extent of freedom that is often not as easily achieved in "real" space. Thus, the internet provides an arena in which sexuality may be constructed with fewer of the constraints imposed by "real" society. This essay will examine how sexuality is formed through the use of the internet while concluding that digital technologies such as instant messaging and virtual chats have further enabled the development of homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual identities.
Instant messaging conducted online assumes the role of a telephone conversation. Peter Kollock and Marc A. Smith describe instant messaging or text chat as "[supporting] synchronous communication - a number of people can chat in real time by sending lines of text to one another" (Smith et al, 6). With instant messaging, users are able to carry on complex textual conversations with other members. The use of emoticons and widely adopted abbreviations are often conveyed to relay various emotions and moods.
As a form of communication, instant messaging has grown increasingly popular over the past few years and its advent has worked to explore aspects of the self that can not always be explored in voice - to - voice conversations. Instant messaging provides a venue for which shy introverts, much like myself, can converse more effectively. Because I am intuitively shy, I have difficulty when talking to others, even on the phone. Instant messaging has provided me and those like me with the opportunity to carry on lengthy, meaningful conversations with others without getting that feeling of being put on the spot. Through the use of words, which is an effective means of communication for me, I am able to pretty much "talk" to another person without ever having to open my mouth.
Since I am often at a loss of words or am left speechless, instant messaging has let me express whatever it is that I need to express that I can not do verbally. I also find instant messaging to be a more efficient form of dialogue because I do not have to waste time stuttering or trying to say what I think but can not enunciate. Instant messaging has a fluency to it and rarely do I experience those awkward moments of silence which I often encounter when engaged in a phone conversation. Instant messaging has enabled those of us with weak verbal skills to effectively converse with others on a personal level. Instant messaging has transformed shy flies into social butterflies.
Webchats are a popular form of media that have come to shape identity over the internet, often doing what coffeehouses did in the past. Brian A. Connery (1996) notes that online chatrooms offer a real and virtual space to participants, allowing them to use the internet as a living room, telephone, and mailbox. Connery compares these chats to late seventeenth and early eighteenth century coffeehouses in London where young men
used coffeehouses for addresses to receive mail, social spares in which to make a 'good figure' (potentially belied by their actual shabby lodgings), and discursive spaces in which to discuss the 'news' and so to launch themselves within commercial, political, or literary communities. (161)
Cyberchats, much like their coffeehouse predecessors, attempt to situate users into a certain community or web group. This adoption is very evident in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual online base. Virtual chats and the internet are providing such minority groups with the opportunity to explore their lifestyle and themselves. Virtual chats and internet groups are providing immediate and easy access to useful resources for those of varying sexual orientations. Connery argues that the internet "lacks regulation, so that much of its information is unofficial and potentially unauthorative. And it provides a social space in which discussion of the 'news' takes place both in virtual time, as in newspapers, and in realtime, as in coffeehouse conversations" (170).
Connery seems to suggest an extent of synchronous telepresence on the internet, where communication must be occurring at the same time but individuals do not have to be in the same place in order to communicate. William Mitchell believes that telepresence can be used to improve communities which lack material resources (1998). This benefit is the exact factor attributed to the widespread use of the internet among queer society. The internet provides such peoples opportunities not otherwise provided to them in the real world. Such opportunities include local places to assemble, a material resource as Mitchell suggests, but further, free will of speech and action.
Connery explains that "like the eighteenth-century coffeehouse, the Internet has provided users with access to information and opinion beyond that provided by the 'official' disseminators of news". This broadening of opinions is of particular relevance to the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. Since the lifestyle pursued by these communities is deemed subversive and irregular in regards to mainstream society, the internet is enabling the extension of the opinions and interests of gays and lesbians which is not as readily available to them in the physical world. Connery proceeds to comment that on the internet "all participants check their actual selves at the door and enter the virtual space as equals simply because they are unknown to one another" (171). Connery implies that online, there is a certain level of equality guaranteed to all members and this works to promote and encourage the flourishing of gay and lesbian societies online. A sense of being equal and apart from the physical self promotes the growth of the gay and lesbian identity because online, such peoples are able to realize that their self - worth and opinions matter just as much as anyone else's. This is evident in the number of lesbian message boards, gay chats, and bisexual websites in proportion to other groups' forums online. The large array of gay and lesbian resources online encourages and attracts homosexuals to a place - a virtual place, where they are just as welcome(theoretically) as everyone else is.
In "Writing in the Body: Gender (Re)production in Online Interaction," Jodi O' Brien (1999) discusses this dynamic: "millions of Americans on networks are logging on ... they're making friends and falling in love without the constraints and protections that apply, as they say, IRL[in real life]." O' Brien introduces other voices that claim in cyberspace 'we're all thrown together without the cues of tone of voice, posture, and facial expression' (80). O'Brien then adds that"for many observers, this leads to the conclusion that physical features will no longer play a role in social interaction ... 'words and thoughts and people's ideas are the most important thing about a person. Online reality gets to the core of things. In some ways there is so much less racism, sexism, looksism" (80 - 81).
As O'Brien points out, online interaction tends to place a greater emphasis on the intellectual aspects of someone's persona as opposed to the physical traits. Thus, romantic relationships have come to flourish in the net because the net prompts fewer feelings of inhibition about the physical body. Users do trade pictures of themselves but this may occur after a strong, lasting relationship has been built. If indeed it is true love, then the relationship will triumph even after digital photos are exchanged.
Instant messaging and virtual chats are essential to the construction of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual identities. Such media afford these groups a level of anonymity that is not guaranteed to them in the real world. Part of the reason such groups of people are largely attracted to online communities is that there is a certain level of protection granted to the users' physical body. This is particularly useful to those who have yet to come "out". Many people resist coming out in the real world because their sexuality immediately becomes associated with their physical body. However, on the internet this is not an issue because users can choose to be associated by their perspective screennames and what they say via textual messages. In his article entitled "Queer Spaces, Modem Boys and Pagan Statues", Randall Woodland (2000) writes that "cyberspace has become a distinctive kind of 'third place' for many gay and lesbian people ... an informal public place, distinct from both home and work. 'The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres' (418). Woodland associates his third place with the anonymity of the closet and his argument is well proven on the internet. Online those who are closeted are able to open that door and explore their sexuality and themselves without the immediate ridicule expected in real spaces.
Similarly, instant messaging and webchats provide safer spaces for queer folk to assemble. Woodland notes that "despite the increasing visibility of gay, lesbian, and even bisexual lives in the popular media, to live as a gay man or lesbian, is to open oneself to attack" (426). He asserts that the confidentiality of webspaces provides a haven away from all the gay bashing and homophobic sentiments echoed in the real world. Such web providers as ModemBoy.net primarily target gay men, thus, eliminating a more diverse yet possibly antagonistic population. Services like America Online strictly prohibit harassment of sexual orientation and AOL provides online supervisors, a.k.a., "TOS Advisor", who enforces their codes of conduct and can pursue the appropriate actions of discipline (426). But still, dissension in queer spaces is not completely eradicated however, it is less likely to be harmful when done online. When a gay basher attacks a gay or lesbian online, they do not really know who they are bashing -- this is one of the many benefits of the internet. Bashers are criticizing homosexuals based on their user ID's and sexual orientation but are unable to cause any harm to their "real" body.
Because identities are usually constructed from text, only a loose association between a user and the basher is formed. While passing on the street, a certain lesbian could cross paths with her online harasser without being subjected to any danger because neither of the two would know who each other was in the real world. To further protect identities online, America Online allows its users to have up to five screennames for each account, any of which can be anonymous (Bell et al, 427). So queer AOL users have the pleasure of exploring the internet on a "safe" ID where sexuality is not taken into account and the opportunity to surf cyberspace as a gay or lesbian on another screenname. Such actions enable gays and lesbians to break away from their sexuality if need be. If the AOL member is not openly gay, they can experiment with their sexual identity online through the use of an additional screenname so that their main ID does not become associated with a particular sexual orientation.
In his article, Woodland also mentions that though cyberspaces offer a certain anonymity to the gay and lesbian community, they also reflect a growing acceptance of such groups along institutional lines. Since equal attention is devoted to queer spaces online in relation to other groups, Woodland suggests that a sort of moral equivalence or neutrality has arisen towards queer communities online (427). The article argues that by locating lesbian and gay spaces into less controversial areas, the development of gay and lesbian identities into mainstream society has further been enabled. However, Woodland is concerned that the increasing acceptance of the homosexual identity online has come to relegate sexual orientation as a sort of special interest. Woodland writes how online being gay has become no less controversial than being a Star Trek fanatic but no more important. Woodland believes that such attitudes suggest that homosexuality is merely a "lifestyle choice" and that this suggestion trivializes such identities (428). The fact that the internet depicts sexual orientation as a matter of choice does not help to bring about a better understanding of queer identities. However, Woodland does not place enough emphasis on the fact that virtual chats, for instance, have become so abundant and popular for gays and lesbians that they offer more immediate and easy access to interaction with other gays and lesbians. With a simple internet provider and a click of a mouse, gays and lesbians are provided with numerous web resources that allow them to investigate and experience their own identities. With the exceptions of major cities, most suburbs and small towns do not have any gay coffeehouses or lesbian clubs. Thus, a question of convenience comes in to play. It is simply easier to log onto the internet than to drive 30 miles or so to the nearest city to meet with other gays and lesbians. The internet has enabled just this with cyberchats and instant messaging.
The internet, particularly through virtual chats and instant messaging, has opened the doors for many homosexuals and bisexuals to come out. Nina Wakeford, in her article "Cyberqueer," observes that "the possibility of anonymity on some services and the lack of face - to - face social cues lead authors to suggest that coming out may be easier on - line, thus transforming the notion of what it means to be gay" (2000, 411). Wakeford raises several important points relating to "coming out" via the internet. For those who still fear for the revelation of their true identity, the internet has become a safeguard for admitting to oneself and others their sexual orientation. Because such lifestyles become associated with a particular user ID and not a physical face, some users find it safer to profess their feelings to another online as opposed to the physical world. Secondly, Wakeford brings up the lack of face - to - face social cues offered on the net. Text conversations and virtual chats serve as popular medias in which "coming out" occurs through because they allow for those with weak verbal skills to literally articulate themselves. Text messaging also alleviates the pressures of being put on the spot, facing a tough situation. Instant messaging tends to be a more effective method of "coming out" for those of us who can express ourselves better through words than speech.
In regards to coming out the closet, the internet provides a venue in which queer members have access to others just like them and materials and information regarding their lifestyle. Numerous online support groups have sprung up online for homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals and the convenience of finding other members online to listen and guide you through a sexual identity crisis is a long - needed relief for those who are undergoing difficult questions over who they are. The internet may also provide for a transitional period after coming out in either realm. During this phase, members can openly experiment with their sexuality by participating in gay message boards, lesbian chatrooms, or one - on - one textual interaction with those who share the same sexual orientation. Meetings in the real world can even be arranged (with caution) via the internet where users have no gay or lesbian friends in the real world can build friendships that begin to cross from the cyber into the physical world.
Along with a level of anonymity, virtual chatrooms and instant messaging are less inhibited by the physical body. With webchats, it is possible to secede the body and allow members to become better acquainted with others on a more personal level. For many, such a transcendence is remarkable because the lot of us who are self - conscious fear rejection based on our outward appearance. Online, users do not have to reveal anything about their looks and if they wanted to, they could all claim to look like Brad Pitt or Britney Spears. Most people online however, with the exception of those looking for a quick sexual encounter, are not as concerned with what one looks like but rather how you interact with others and what your interests are. Nina Wakeford writes that "there has been much less attention to the body which is not screened, the one which is 'left' when the computer is turned off, or even what happens to the 'real' body when the computer is on" (413). Wakeford implies that textual forms of communication allows you to construct a "virtual" body that is separate from your "real" body. MSN features chatrooms in a café - bar setting where users are identified by avatars, or cartoon characters. While Wakeford observes that the mainline chatting is still done through text, the cartoon figures are given an extent of emotions and expressions. For example, Wakeford comments that "the execudyke can flirt or open her jacket to reveal a Lesbian Avengers T - shirt, as the user selects different modes from a predetermined set of cartoon images" (407). Animation is one way in which queer folk can exert their identities. As mentioned by Wakeford, the user selects the image which best suits her or him and thus they are able to build on their own perception of themselves to construct a representation of themselves which they find to be the most accurate.
ModemBoy.net is a membership - oriented Bulletin Board System aimed at gay males that attempts to recreate the settings of a formal high school. Wakeford believes that in a sense, ModemBoy.net takes textual interaction and "allows for an appropriation and redemption of negative high school experiences" (419). In many respects, ModemBoy.net allows its members the opportunity to return to the past and experience high school in a more preferred fashion. However, identity in this "virtual" high school is also contorted, much so by popular gay images. Wakeford writes that "[ModemBoy.net] constructs gay men as horny, sexually compulsive adolescent boys ... ModemBoy.net builds on images common in gay male subculture and in society as a whole. Through its playful focus on a particular strand of gay iconography, ModemBoy.net gains the comfortable uniformity of a consistent spatial metaphor but potentially disenfranchises more diverse expressions of queer identity" (419 - 420).
Wakeford sees that "ModemBoy.net's cultural referents are 'horny, sexually compulsive adolescent boys' and a blatant ideal of 'hairless white boys' (419). Much like heterosexual individuals, homosexuals are subjected to similar ideals of beauty and image. Thus, these standards are often depicted in online representations. Such is the case with ModemBoy.net, where users are considered to be "STUDents" (419) and meet the media's portrayal of gay men. These identities are also reflected in the user IDs selected by gay internet members, such as "CuteGayBoi22" or "HotBeachBoy84". The descriptions incorporated into such user IDs demonstrates the influence of popular gay iconography on the gay community.
Wakeford suggests that while "you can be whoever you want to be in cyberspace" (412), nonetheless, "identity appears to be attached primarily to signals of the body, whether they are codes for body parts or physical attributes ...". Wakeford explains how queer users can alter and experience different physical accounts of themselves while logged onto a chatroom or other network. She attributes this fact to the norms of online interaction, where you are practically "bodyless," so users are free to devise images of themselves that they find most acceptable to themselves and others (413).
Randal Woodland concludes that " we must not forget that these [virtual] communities are, for the most part, rooted not in face-to-face interactions but in discourse, more specifically in the kinds of discourse that take queer identities, however contested, as a given. The kinds of writing engendered by these spaces are informed by a perspective that moves queer discourses from the boundaries to the centre" (Woodland, 429).
Such a transformation in the attitudes towards gay issues is witnessed on America Online or the world wide web more generally through the growth of such forums as Planet Out. Woodland ends his argument by writing that
although the initial impulse for establishing an on - line queer space may be to set up a 'safe' environment where people can feel free to express their identities, such spaces also become the sites where identities are shaped, tested, and transformed, both individually and corporately. The fluid boundaries of on - line spaces prove an apt locus for this redefinition of queer identities" (430).
Online, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities are experiencing a "tornado" in communication and in the way in which they view themselves. Indeed, over the rainbow lies a virtual world, a sort of cyber "Oz", where queer folk can associate and assemble freely without the constraints of "Kansas". Most certainly, "there are no closets in Cyberspace" (Smith et al, 82).
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