Lesbian Writer's Block In Paris

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | There's free wifi in Paris at all of the libraries, and most of the parks and municipal buildings. A great thing, right? But for a while now the program's pornography filter has been blocking almost every web page with the words “gay” or “lesbian” or “gai” or “goudou” or even “lesbiana.” I can't research queer news or queer history or activism. Worse, I can't access my own Gay City News or Gully online articles, even my blogs. Counting both journalism and activism, almost 15 years of my work and life have disappeared.

At first it was infuriating – you can make appeals page by page, but why bother? Then it became disconcerting. Like looking in a mirror and seeing a blank space where your face used to be.

There's a book of photographs called “The Commissar Vanishes” that records much the same effect. Fall out of favor, Stalin had you airbrushed from history, and often from life. There was a 1926 photo that at first showed Stalin with Antipov, Kirov, and Schwernik, three top members of the Communist Party. In a 1940 version, Antipov had disappeared. Nine years later Schwernik was gone. In the last, still based on the original photo, Stalin stood alone.

While I haven't actually been murdered, being erased sure makes my skin crawl.

Probably I'm a victim of somebody's war on pornography. “Think of the children. Oh, think of them, their tender little fingers typing 'lesbian' into a search engine and getting page after page of porn, of misconceptions, of hardcore and disgusting stuff. And if the rest of it is blocked, isn't that an acceptable price to pay for protecting their delicate minds? Well, isn't it?”

No. Not at all. And that's the best scenario. That queers like me are just caught by mistake in the net.

At worst, we're the victims of pure homophobia in which lesbians and gay men really are the targets, really are considered filth that should be kept out of the public waters of “democratized” information. I wouldn't totally discount the possibility.

Last week, I went to one of the city's information desks and asked an employee if she could help me navigate the Paris bureaucracy and identify the person or department responsible for the wifi filter. She asked why, and when I explained, using the words “gay” and “lesbian,” her face went white, she quit listening, and backed away from the counter to avoid contagion. “Is there a problem with the connection? We're only responsible for problems with connections.” She couldn't have been more upset if I'd pulled a gun or dropped my pants.

On the other hand, a young librarian didn't bat an eye at the word gay. She just didn't believe me at first. “It's not possible. Bertrand Delanoe is the mayor.” She didn't say he was gay, but that's what she meant. A homophobic filter couldn't happen under a gay mayor's watch. But as of Tuesday afternoon Paris time, pages are still blocked, including articles with gay subject matter at the New York Times. All classified as “pornographie.”

This morning I called the Paris press office to find out what's what. Everybody I wanted was busy or out of town. So, as ordered, I sent an email asking 1) if Mr. Delanoe the gay mayor knew about the filter, and 2) what was going to be done to improve it? Nobody answered by my deadline.

I guess I could soldier on next week, trying to pull the thread and find out who exactly is responsible for the filter. As it turns out, the wifi program falls under the city's Department of Economic Development and Employment (DDEE), which lists Deputy Mayors Jean-Bernard Bros, Lyne Cohen-Solal, Jean-Louis Missika, and Christian Sautter as political overseers. I could call them directly, but I think I'll just blame Delanoe. He's been the moving force behind the program and God knows he's taken credit for efforts like this one to modernize the city, and stop the French brain drain by offering, in the program's own words, “unlimited access to information and culture.” Let him take the responsibility when it fails.

It's not a small thing to be erased. Even by mistake. Even for the greater good. Almost the only thing we have are our names – “gay,” “lesbian” – and we shouldn't disappear without a fight.

I think it's why poor people so often are loud. Those drag queens on the corner mouthing off. Trashy types paddling their wailing kids at the K-mart or screaming from apartment windows and blasting music until they're assimilated into the silent, mostly white middle-class world where we die on the hook of a partial smile and turned away eyes. All teenagers everywhere shouting and shrieking and scribbling graffiti and blogs and diaries. Even the poorest drunk can cackle and insult, shower us with curses if not with gold. It's what you do when all you own is your own voice, those last few fighting words.


Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.