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Blocking LGBT Websites On Public School Computers

Crossposted from the View From (Ab)Normal Heights and the Ex-Gay Watch.
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One of the things that has become a boon for the transgender community was the coming of the internet. I’ve no empirical data to back up that belief, but the reality that my transgender peers and I can go online and find out about transgender School Computerspeople and issues has allowed community building. Previously, the relatively small number of out transpeople, and lack of interconnectivity between geographically separated transcommunities made it difficult for transpeople to learn of each others’ existence.

Not only has the internet provided means for transpeople to interconnect, it’s also provided transpeople access to accurate information regarding transgender issues to a wide audience. Examples include TS Roadmap, Psychology of Gender Identity and Transsexualism, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Transgender Law Center.

This is equally true for LGBT people and community organizations, like the Ex-Gay Watch and Truth Wins Out, that seek to counter the lies spread by ex-gay ministries. Without the internet, Michael Johnston would never have been exposed. We would never know about Kyle and the other kid being confined at LIA/R. The claims made by Alan Chambers and others in small town newspapers throughout the nation would never be tracked and exposed. And the real life stories of those who have gone through ex-gay ministries and survived — or didn’t — would never have a voice.

These kinds of non-pornographic websites are ones many want to keep out of high school students reach.

Florida’s Palm Beach County School District did just that with LGBT related websites. In May, the Independent Gay News reported that an Inlet Grove High School senior — Joe Dellosa — writing for his school’s online news publication (Iiletspin.com), found: (more after jump)

“…that the websites of such prominent gay rights or advocacy organizations as Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (www.glaad.org), Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (www.pflag.org), Gay-Straight Alliance Network (www.gsanetwork.org), and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates (www.outandequal.org) are inaccessible using a District computer.

At the same time, however, inletspin.com revealed several websites of organizations that did not support homosexuality that were not blocked. “For instance, www.narth.com—the website of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality—was not blocked. The websites for the Traditional Values Coalition (www.traditionalvalues.org), the American Family Association (www.afa.net), and Focus on the Family (www.family.org), three organizations that feature material on their websites against gay rights, were not blocked, either.”

If a student attempted to navigate to one of the blocked LGBT websites on a school computer, the student would receive a Blue Coat Systems Inc.’s WebFilter message labeling the sites “Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles” sites.

Blue Coat WebFilter defines Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles as:

Sites that provide information, promote, or cater to gays, lesbians, swingers, other sexual orientations or practices, or a particular fetish. This category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature which would typically fall under the Pornography category.

This goes beyond just blocking sites that use the word “gay” or talk about homosexual issues.

Apparently this webfilter, as well as other content filters, are used in attempts to comply with federal law. In a 365Gay.com article District spokesperson Bob LaRocca indicated:

… the district complies with the Child Online Protection Act and the Children Internet Protection Act said that the decision to block certain sites is based on age-appropriateness and the need to protect the youngest students.

The Florida Sun-Sentinel and 365Gay.com now report that some of the previously blocked websites are now unblocked, but some sites remain blocked. Per the Sun-Sentinel article, Michael Woods (a teacher at Forest Hill High School in West Palm Beach who is trying to start a Gay Straight Alliance club on campus) indicated he could now use a school computer to navigate to the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network website, but he received the “Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles” message when he attempted to navigate to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The 365Gay.com article indicated:

Other sites still banned include the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.

Per the 365Gay.com article, websites belonging to the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, the Traditional Values Coalition and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) can all still be viewed. Given the definition of Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles above, not blocking these sites makes sense as the filtering is described — these particular websites aren’t catering to “gays, lesbians, swingers, other sexual orientations or practices, or a particular fetish;” these websites are instead catering to people who believe the people in that list are sinners, or need reparative therapy.

Per a Blue Coat Systems press release:

Broadband-Testing Laboratories, Europe’s foremost independent network testing facility and consultancy organization, shows Blue Coat WebFilter to have the highest level of recognition and accuracy in classifying URLs among those tested. The test, conducted in Moux, France, compared Blue Coat WebFilter to Websense v6.1, SmartFilter v4, Surf Control and ALSI Intersafe.

It’s reasonable to assume then that the specific techniques of how the Blue Coat WebFilter content filter actually filters information were most likely intentionally designed into the product — and again, this all goes beyond filtering keywords like “gay” or “homosexual.” Keyword screening would automatically exclude NARTH and Focus on the Family. Instead, someone has either decided — or programmed the system to decide — that these groups are to be excepted from the “no discussion about homosexuality” rule. To allow NARTH and not XGW is an endorsement of NARTH and its anti-gay agenda. Surely this is – at least in some states – illegal.

And, is an apparent government sanctioned message that gay is bad and ex-gay is good that a third party programmed in off-the-shelf web content Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles filtering a message that the LGBT community can accept? The message that government education agencies indicate that LGBT activism organizations are wrong and need to be filtered, and organizations that indicate LGBT people are sinful and/or can or should be cured of their homosexuality or transsexuality are right and don’t need to be filtered?

I believe web content filters for public schools should — and likely will — become a higher priority issue for LGBT activism organizations than the issue is now. Continuing to build LGBT community is going to be difficult if the next generation can’t find out anything about those of us who are already out of the closet, or find out what can and can’t be done regarding organizing their own LGBT groups within their own schools.


*****Update******

By the way, I tested the Ex-Gay Watch website on their Verify a site category in the WebFilter database.  This is the entry:

The page you want reviewed is http://www.exgaywatch.com 
This page is currently categorized as Blogs/Newsgroups, and Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles

And Pam’s House Blend:

The page you want reviewed is http://www.pamshouseblend.com/ 
This page is currently categorized as Blogs/Newsgroups, and Political/Activist Groups

And A View From (Ab)Normal Heights:

The page you want reviewed is http://transadvocate.com/autumnsandeen/ 
This page is currently categorized as Blogs/Newsgroups, and Sexuality/Alternative Lifestyles, and Adult/Mature Content

You can test if a website is blocked or not here with their Sitesearch tool.

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Timothy Kincaid and David Roberts of the Ex-Gay Watch contributed to this entry.

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