Southbank Smurfing: Virtual Homophobia and Cyber-Bullying

In the past decade there has been increased media attention to bullying in schools that was first brought into public focus because of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre which was perpetuated by two students who had been the persistent objects of bullying.  In recent years, the focus of bullying has shifted towards the bullying of queer youth after statistics revealed the link sexuality and suicide with approximately 30 percent of all completed suicides being related to sexual identity crises (although this statistic does not make a link between bullying and suicide) and certain high profile cases such as the eighteen-year-old Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself in 2010.  In short, bullying tends to be a common occurrence amongst all children regardless of sexuality—kids are mocked, tortured and physically attacked for any myriad number of reasons.  In my own childhood I witnessed kids who were bullied for being: fat, skinny, a geek, non-athletic, mentally disabled, and not having stylistic clothing.  Kids can be cruel to each other for certain, but with bullying is that it just takes a few brutish kids to simulate the ambience of a generalised aggression against the individual whereby a few kids cans easily seem like most.

Like many people, I was also bullied as a child and did not appreciate the taunts about my accent, my clothing, my perceived sexuality, and my ethnicity.   I was teased, pushed, beaten up and many a day after school my brother and I had to run a two hundred metre dash from the bus stop home to avoid the wrath of the racist kids chasing us.  I loved learning in school but I conterminously feared going to school because of the bullying.  Due to my experiences, I can  state with all certainty that one form of bullying is no worse than another.  However, when I was that child I never once imagined that in my adult life I would come across bullies in even greater quantities, adults who who lack the basic intellectual and moral filters possessed by most twelve-year-olds.  And as a queer woman, I never thought I would find so many bullies within the larger—and ostensibly my—gay community.

In recent months I have been involved in certain anti-bullying measures in London and by Internet after having found myself bullied by a former lover and more recently after a series of online bullying attacks.  A life-long human rights activist, I have embraced the notion of social and personal change because it is only through individual change that we can begin to evidence a collective revolution of thought and behaviour together.  I have witnessed the ameliorations that social and political activism has brought within my own lifetime from my mother whispering about the “lesbians who live next door” (and each time she referred to these neighbors’s sexuality she would always whisper “lesbian”) to entering gay clubs in the Deep South where secret knocks were the only sign to allow access into a hermetically sealed space where those present feared the police as much as they feared the KKK.  I recall feeling liberated when I would enter gay spaces in Zurich, Paris, West Palm Beach and New York in the late 1980s where secret knocks were no longer necessary and the clandestine nature of entry was replaced by an itinerary of dress codes, body glitter, naked twinks dancing on a bar ledge, and special events which inevitably involved some form of a sexualised spectacle labelled “performance.”  Gay culture in New York City in the 1980s and early 1990s was amazingly open and free.  Going to Gay Pride in my early twenties in New York City was exciting the first year or two, after which I not only began to see a pattern in the panoply of floats and themes but I also saw a repeated behavioural pattern amongst my fellow queer humans for whom celebrating “pride” was far from something to be proud of as celebration fell into debauchery.  In the early 1990s I noticed a turning point when this freedom turned into a rote mandatory posturing which everyone was assumed to follow from clothing to political and social ideals.  Quickly the notion of community was reduced to pure fashion or ten minutes in a back room of the Crow Bar.  Likewise, Pride festivities were unmemorable as poppers and alcohol consume the multifarious subjects dancing away on a hot June afternoon to what were really caricatures of queer identities.  After all, how many times can a silver or gold glittering drag queen really be interesting or indicative of “pride,” not to mention the constant and problematically misogynist representations of men in drag and the never-ending themes of lesbians which are denoted within a very restricted monolith of gender and sexuality as dykes on bikes and lesbians in flannel shirts and Doc Martens proliferated the social space as the lesbian par excellence?  I began to see what many of my friends who fled New York City every Gay Pride weekend meant when they said we were ghettoising ourselves.

In my mid-twenties I started to shy away from this community for I saw what negative effects it brought: a collectivity of partying adults who essentially perpetuated childhood ad infinitum, a culture that is rife with drug and alcohol addiction and a society in which any form of discussion outside of partying was pretty much unwelcome.  Happily I had friends of all sexualities who embraced me for who I was as a complete person and not merely a reduction of my sexuality.   I was able to interact socially whilst living outside this gay ghetto and build up relationships based on shared intellectual, artistic and yogic interests and not mere a coincidence of sexuality.  Certainly, I remained politically active within the gay community and volunteered my time on AIDS projects, on civil and human rights movements directly related to the disenfranchisement of queer rights in the United States, Latin America, the Middle East and the Maghreb.  I also found groups of humans around this wonderful planet who were queer and straight invested in similar issues of art, politics, and intellectual endeavours whereby sexuality was coincidental and never the unique point of identification.  In short, I refused to live exclusively within the “gay community” because it seemed to me that the more equal rights we achieved within out political and cultural economies, the larger this self-imposed ghetto grew.  I wanted my life to be more than pasties on a six foot two blond adonis who wears a cock sock while jiggling his junk to the stoned and drunk masses who mistake this for liberation. At some point I realised that gay liberation needed to be an act of daily affirmation and action and not a once a year binge drinking event.  Or as my friend Renato from Palermo would tell me, “I don’t live in the gay world. I live in the world.”

In 2007 while using gay social media to connect with women online I found myself the victim of bullying on the UK lesbian site Gingerbeer wherein any form of discussion that did not rotate around macho antics, alcohol and party talk was strictly prohibited. And by “prohibited” I mean a gang of unkind lesbians came online and to insult me for about 20 posts followed by some who virtually defecated while other removed their clothes.  Welcome to the 21st century of gay bashing by lesbians!  And while cyber-bullying is not specific to queer spaces, I learned in my use of the Internet since 1991 that it certainly is prolific within queer spaces for reasons which I will delineate below.

The term “cyber-bullying” was first coined by Canadian educator and anti-bullying activist, Bill Belsey, who defined it as such:  “the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others.” [1]  Generally “cyber-bullying” is used to refer to the harassment of children while “cyber-harassment” and “cyber-stalking” are used to denote the harassment of adults.  For the purpose of this article and in light of recent research which is treating this behaviour collectively  to include “flaming” (live chat or social network harassment), I am going to conflate both types of abusive online behaviour under “cyber-bullying”since these acts get at the true spirit of the aggression being posed its victims regardless of age.  In today’s Internet topography cyber-bullying has grown to unbelievable proportions with as many as 42% of youth having experienced cyber-bullying and the US Justice Department indicating that at least 10% of adult users online have been bullied with 30,000 cases per year reported in the United States alone. While women, children and the elderly were thought to be overwhelming victims of cyber-bullies, this has changed to where men account for at least 40% of the victims.  Also the number of women perpetrators increased in 2005 from 25% to 40% of the stalkers.  As live stalking used to be a domain where men were the usual stalkers of women, cyber-bullying today is evidencing a entirely different face of harassment in the virtual terrain of the social where women bully men and other women almost as much as men.  Certainly this is a social illness that merits further examination.

My foray into Gingerbeer back in 2007 quickly soured and within a day and a half of attempting to have an open dialogue with other women about issues central to lesbian culture I found myself amidst a frenzied attack of lesbian cyber-bullies.  The attacks had a few thoughtful kind actors who in the end were accused of being each other or me and the typical tactics of homogenisation that recall Nazi notions of the social were utilised in order to silence and render uni-dimensional the cyberspace of Gingerbeer.  Needless to say, I quickly left that site.  However, after this experience I began to notice a similar pattern on queer dating sites where I would get extremely angry, sometimes threatening letters, which usually attempted to respond to my “please do not contact me if…” list.  I found it curious that since the prevalence of the Internet in late 1990s that social strategies radically changed within lesbian culture: face to face encounters went viral.  It seemed as if every damaged woman who could not perform on the live terrain of social discourse and dialogue took to the anonymity and “safety” (safety from actual face to face critical discourse and bilateral forms of dialogue) of the Internet.  Such behaviour is not surprising  because the Internet as medium for their bullying frees them from normative and social constraints on their behaviour.  Nonetheless, such behaviour is disturbing as are the numbers of virtual bystanders who say nothing or who eventually get pulled into the harassment usually siding with the bullies (ie. in 85% of bullying incidents, bystanders are involved in teasing the victim or egging on the bully). [2]

My experiences on websites like Gingerbeer and gay.com led me to remark a certain force of behavioural homogenisation at work within the lesbian community and I quickly fled these spaces with more questions than answers.  I wondered why allegedly democratic forums such as chat rooms and social networking sites which rely on the written word as their primary form of communication would attract so many for whom verbal or written communication seems to be a challenge at best—or at worse, a call for Tourette’s-like responses to other virtual subjects who are posing rational and respectfully formulated ideas. A medium which ought to have brought into the social sphere multitudes of women who can write and express themselves actually proved to repel many as it was clear these boards were dominated by the socially and verbally challenged, not to mention those with deeply seated problems of anger.  It seemed quite ironic that those who were able to express themselves with respect towards others in the group were repressed and bullied on a regular basis while those women who tended towards monosyllabic grunts, “LOL”, “ROTFL” among various other demonstrations of literary underachievement seemed to dominate the discourse of the chat room by defaulting to any number of ploys to bring the conversation perpetually back to party talk, private stories which few could follow and vulgar sexualised semiotics.  Many who were bullied would simply leave these spaces stating “I can’t be bothered,” “There are too many angry women in there,”  “I left the closet for this?” and other similar expressions of dismay.  Overall, those women who were harassed were able to perceive what they saw as the need for these bullies to homogenise opinion, to force consensus and ultimately to push away and marginalise all those cyber-subjects with whom they did not agree.

The move to homogenise social discourse was one of the most frightening commonalities I found within lesbian social websites over the past twenty years. Tangentially, I also wondered why a group of women, many of whom were heretofore oppressed within their own communities and family for reasons of their sexuality, would be so aggressive and unkind towards other women with whom they share certain ideas and lifestyles.  And finally I could not get away from analysing how these tactics of cyber-bullying mirrored precisely those of the previously dominant hetero-normative groups and political structures.  In essence, I had to wonder if the social perversion of bullying that I had witnessed and was victim to might also be part of a larger continuum of internalised homophobia wherein many lesbians today need to homogenise others and to obliterate any type of “difference” within “their kind.” The social characteristics that were perceived as a threat from these women were essentially attached to anyone whom they sensed was educated, independent and who did  not go along with the bullies’ narrow notions of identity, language, the corporeal and performative.

Here I am reminded of Paolo Friere’s admonition to the oppressed in his wonderful and profoundly timeless book entitled Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Here Friere warns the oppressed of the dangers of identifying with and eventually becoming a new type of oppressor:

On the other hand, at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the middle-class oppressed, who yearn to be equal to the “eminent” men and women of the upper class. [3]

Friere goes on to analyse this attraction and repulsion by citing Albert Memmi, a Tunisian writer and essayist, to demonstrate how Memmi identifies with his coloniser:

How could the colonizer look after his workers while periodically gunning down a crowd of colonized? How could the colonized deny himself so cruelly yet make such excessive demands? How could he hate the colonizers and yet admire them so passionately? (I too felt this admiration in spite of myself.)  [4]

Friere’s and Memmi’s texts theorise how in the situations of colonialism, oppression can become a paradigm that can turn comrades into enemies because they cannot break free of this conditioning.  Instead, Friere asserts that the oppressed tends to define herself in terms of either one or the other and therefore some very easily becomes a new oppressor for the newly liberated oppressed.

In a parallel social panorama of today, the newly liberated queer subject given the faceless power of Internet reveals herself to be a new oppressor and she seamlessly mimics all the tropes and social mechanisms of oppression that she had learned as its victim, memorising the forms of shame and silencing that she was taught.  In attempting to come to terms with a political terrain that is no longer hampered with the immense threats of outing that could result in loss employment, alienation from family members and friends, or the fear of gay bashing, this subject finds herself in a social and political sphere where identity is no longer a cohesive monolith of political necessity and where individualisation outside of the monicker of sexuality can actually breath its own space.  But what this subject had congealed throughout the years of living in the closet and living as the victim of various forms of homophobia and other forms social exclusion, is her identity as that which is reflected in those of her compatriots, her fellow queer sisters with whom she has formed a unitary tie of identity that is not only political in nature, but which is necessarily corporeal and philosophical.  The Internet puts this subject in a foreign space of anonymity, mixed geography and cultural heritage, and necessarily various points of view on any number of subjects.   However, she has grown accustomed to the discourse of the closeted underground as it is difficult for her to understand her life outside of  referential evocations of past parties, Pride festivals, and of those to come.  She  has become accustomed to a queer space that is extremely homogenous and so tightly-knit to the discourses of a uni-dimensional sexuality that she never made room for or gave thought to those queer subjects who perhaps had something else to offer this space of multiple subjectivity.  Hence this colonising subject lives in her self-constructed ghetto of gaydom as her days and nights are punctuated by the trope of everything GLBT (a horrid acronym whose attempt at multiplicity only reduces identity to conformity).

Her identity is but a carcass of a glorious past which she attempts to prolong into the future through the repetition of the bygone colonial era when indeed being gay and oppressed was a reason to hold open and half-naked rallies in the streets to wake up the somnambulant.  Today such genuflections towards the papacy of gaydom make little sense in the present world where more and more homosexuals find such events to be outdated, cliché and extremely problematic.  For as much as these gay spaces seek celebratory gestures that recall various moments of “liberation”, they do so at the expense of sexist and even homophobic narratives.  The over-identification of certain behaviours as “gay” but nonetheless cast in a positive light is equally as problematic as other behaviours which are equally labelled “gay” and cast in a negative light.  While we have prepared the world to say “girlfriend” accompanied by a few snaps, one must remember that the market on performance of any nature is ultimately an open field, a tabla rasa for all theatrical and social conventions.  To assert that homosexual behaviour should somehow be understood formulaically is problematic at best as we  revel in the stereotypes of female drag queens and male drag kings in the nexus of the social whilst many go online to bully those who question if such performances might not have worn out their symbolic and cultural values.

So in this polysemous world of Internet dialogues I found myself last Fall invited by a friend to join Southbank Surfing, a lesbian event and virtual Facebook space in London.  The Facebook page revealed all sorts of discussions, most of which are by the women who started this event welcoming new “members” whilst other discussions dipped into the vulgar with certain members writing lengthy threads about it being “their first time” to attend and how they were “Southbank Surfing virgins” whereby various postings of those begging to be “devirginised” were plentiful.   I found this sort of discussion problematic for obvious reasons, but I was happy to find a group of women with whom I could dialogue and meet monthly.  The first event itself was acceptable and some of the women I met seemed friendly and intelligent.  I made a few friends from this social occasion, a few with whom I chatted on the main Facebook site in December.  I remember many posts in December about Christmas and various women who announced their vacation plans.  However when I had posted about Hannukah that post mysteriously disappeared.  The next day I saw a new friend, Rose, online and we discussed very briefly a recent Muslim holiday–those posts were also deleted.  I found it strange that all the posts referring to hangovers, Christmas, personal holidays and even private parties were left up on this website but ours were taken down.  Rose and I wrote the organisers of this event and we were told that they were doing “Spring Cleaning” and it was “accidentally deleted.”  Both Rose and I found this suspicious because it is pretty hard to delete six posts by accident.  Chatting with Rose, a political activist in her own right,  I learned that there was a group of lesbians who bullied Muslim lesbians at London Pride last year throwing vegetables and fruit at them.  I was disturbed by this news.

Then just about five weeks ago, I noticed a user, Susan, who wrote an apologetic message for having posted about her inability to get to the bar the week before because of the lack of wheelchair access.  Her posts were removed and an organiser, Jo, had started a new thread:

Hello everybody.  Can I remind you all to read our etiquette notes in the docs link above. It’s just a few helpful tips about posting on the group or events page.  The organisers moderate this group as much as we can, and that means we also reserve the right to remove posts.  Thanks and wishing you all a lovely week ahead.

Having already noticed an incredible prejudice in the messages that had previously been deleted from the site, it was clear that this group discriminates again any mention of Jewish and Muslim holidays, exchanges between women who are somehow not in the “in crowd,” and now it would seem any discussion of wheelchair access.  So I went to rules and read them:

1. No commercial ventures are to be advertised here. If you have an interesting and free community project to promote run it by one of the organisers first. However we rarely push anything here.
2. If you end up in a long chat about something totally unrelated (it happens to us all from time to time) then take it to your personal messages or pages please.
3. As you’d expect, we won’t tolerate rudeness, offensive language or anything we deem to overstep the boundaries of SBS etiquette. We are all about the love. Feel free to debate among yourselves the fine points of defining ‘offensive’. We think hard about this stuff too.

I found this list reasonable given that a “long chat” did not exclude the various posts of people’s bodily functions after the last event or their bravado and excitement about drinking.  However in rethinking the list of rules it was evident that the posts whose removal I had already witnessed did not violate any of the rules (ie. a couples posts whereby two individuals wrote “Don’t I know you from x Meetup Group?” or another post stating “Happy Ashura”); yet many threads which populated this site were in clear violation of these rules and were never removed.  Censorship seemed to be at the heart of this group’s  moderation methods and I wanted to clarify this in as gentle a manner as possible. The following post was by Susan who  stated that she could not post at all and it was here that I jumped in and responded:

Not to play devil’s advocate here but I rather enjoy the diversity of comments and would welcome anything that moves beyond the “party til you drop” or countdown posts. There are only so many times one can read “I can’t believe it’s Friday already.” ;)

Susan answered my post by explaining that there had been a “heated discussion” and that the posts were removed adding:

I am tempted to start a discussion up when/if I ever get post creation rights back again about a topic that interests me. Just so I have an idea whether anyone going to the next SBS is worth finding due to shared common interests. Seen as my wheelchair will limit my ability to roam the crowds and it would be easier to know who to try and spot – although obviously chatting to me on facebook does not mean you have to talk to me in person either :)

I replied:

Hey Susan. I didn’t follow that discussion. I think it is fair that people discuss things here–after all SBS is what brought people together and conversely this is the space that brings people out to SBS. I know it is more interesting to see that X has a play opening or Y is running a marathon than many of the comments that are to pass for “on topic”. I don’t see SBS as having to be limited to postings about drinking and multiple exhortations of TGIF. By interacting in other ways on this FB page I have met some amazing people (ie. Liz and Rose, just to name a few). I would never have met these lovely women had it not been for this FB page and the ability to interact (like this) :)    If the discussion to which you refer was on wheelchair access, I would think that it is totally appropriate given the first time I saw you was at SBS and I recall you having a rather onerous task of getting through what was a significantly smaller number of women than the recent SBS events. I cannot imagine how it has been for you in these last two events. I really haven’t had time to follow most of the postings here due to my work this past month. I hope this finds you well.

A few others chimed in about their not being able to post, one asked about dates for the next event and the spirit of the thread was perfectly pleasant.  Then Patrice came on bellowing her orders to the masses:

To other comments on this amazing monthly meeting that you obviously DO NOT organise. You have a choice and STOP being so Negative and complaining!!! If you do not like SBS then go somewhere else!!!! this is up to you and stop this negative crap…. Get a life!!!

Sadly, this kind of flaming reminded me of the behaviour I had already seen on many other lesbian sites and hence I was not surprised by such an aggressive and angry response.    Patrice seemed to take on the role of school matron where none was needed.   I wrote Patrice and reminded her that her language invoked negativity and that we had been engaging in a productive and positive exchange of ideas until her “arrival.”  I asked that she respect the peaceful dialogue that was ongoing. Patrice, however, was unstoppable and rather intent on stirring up controversy:

Get a life!!!! If you want deep and meaningful’s go on Oprah!!!!! or even better still remove yourself as I have listened to your opinionated views for months now and do not appreciate your attitude on this site towards others….. So follow the rules and the only one showing disrespect to other women in this site seems to be you!!!…. I wish to pay no further comment to what you reply with as this is done….

Aside from finding anyone who finds Oprah “deep and meaningful” risible, the message here was quite violent: “Get out, do not express your opinions and if you must have opinions that do not reflect our ideas, leave.”  Soon more bullies came on to vocalise similarly angry posts.  Of course Patrice and her cohorts were welcome to express freely their disagreement as I had no problem to respond to that respectfully.  However, being attacked online, as in person, is an uncomfortable position to be put in since to post about the need for some flexibility in dialogue on a social networking site is neither unreasonable nor negative.  However, the responses to our request were just that.  Shortly after this another two women jumped in to include Liz who wrote, “Well this is debate at least! let’s have a Murakami appreciation society!” and “It’s a bit like West Side Story isnt it…the Jets V the Sharks!”  I found Liz’s comments spot on and quite refreshing for the level of harassment that had already begun.  Little did we know that Liz was closer to the truth than any of us knew as a lesbian Westside Story was upon us.  Vanessa and Liz shared their ideas about bullying with Liz stating, “[Y]es, i agree with your words…as someone who was teased at skool for having leftfield views.” Liz interjected lively comments a few times and her ideas reminded me that we were finding ourselves in a paradigm which exactly mirrored that of gay bashing: we were expected to be a type of lesbian who thought and posted in a way that reflected the normative standards assumed by these bullies.   There was absolutely no difference in what these women were doing from heterosexuals who bully a person for not being straight or at least for not keeping their homosexuality “shut up” and out of their sight.

Vanessa came on in full deconstruction of the scene that was unfolding before us as Patrice would not leave the few posts on wheelchair access and freedom of speech:

Patrice, there is nothing funnier than seeing someone becoming frenzied by others sharing ideas. Nobody seems to be exuding “negativity” & complaining here but you. But do keep ranting. In part it is amusing. In part it’s not and only reminds me of the kind of venting the Right has perpetuated for years on homosexuals telling us what to do, where to do it and how to phrase it. This limiting of speech is so hetero-passé, extremely conservative and so not what we should be doing here to each other. Viva la libertad! Food for thought.

Others were starting to notice a pattern of harassment that mirrored that of gay bashing and it was not coincidental.  Utilising a tactic I noticed implemented frequently on Gingerbeer, one of the organisers, Imke, jumped into the bully session and accused me of being Vanessa.  It was a standard argument ad hominem wherein the logic of my original post is diverted and perverted by means of personal affronts.  What was terrible about this was that an organiser also bullied us which meant that the entire event would become unhinged as Imke’s passive-aggressive behaviour on this thread actually encouraged the augmentation and not the decrease of the aggressions.   As the bullying continued  Liz, Vanessa and I stopped posting as we observed the onslaught verging towards the surreal.  One woman named Eve came on trying to obfuscate the actual bullying by making her/their cause into something else:

Can I suggest that those who want a debating forum, start your own Facebook group.  I get the sense that the SBS organisers want to keep their Facebook page a fun & light-hearted way to keep peeps updated of future events. This should be respected.

Indeed it is fascinating to watch the mob psychology evolve as each new player in this vast field of destruction stirs the waters and provokes further reaction from their cohorts.  While Eve tries to pervert our constructive comments about the openness of the forum twisting the nature of the dialogue into “a debate,” others framed our words as “political.”  Paradoxically the only thing truly political about this thread was the brutal flaming that transpired since there is nothing more political than insulting people and telling them to shut up.  This reminded me of one of the moderator’s earlier use of the term “Spring cleaning” when she purged two messages (not a “long chat”)  related to Hanukkah and Ashura.  These actors were taking their cues from the symbolic leaders of the bullying, the very moderators who let them feel entitled in the first place to “take down” any detractors, to demean anyone who was different. There was this closed circle formed of those who broke the rules and who were free to have “long chats” about anything to include drinking, cruising and vomiting, and those who were barred from making one or two posts about an issue central to the open forum of the group.

Conveniently each bully who would add to the thread jumped onto this narrative of international conspiracy, alleged that we were denigrating  the “organisers” or we were outrightly accused of not being “fun.”   Natasha whose notion of open dialogue seems to have been modelled after her consumption of various James Bond films, or at the very least one too many viewings of  Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery chimed in:

Omfg. I smell dirty laundry. Its Simple.. You want to chat about what u would do if you ruled the world? START YOUR OWN PAGE! Let’s see then how you handle people who disagree with “your” views.

All high drama and the only thing missing was a globe of the earth with all three of us plotting where to send the bombs containing laughing gas.  What I find compelling in a psychoanalytic reading of these posts is how the actual bullying is co-opted within this pseudo-democratic appeal to have “the rules” obeyed by individuals who reveal themselves to be slightly if not utterly narcissistic. In reading these posts it is evident that the “other” does not exist for these women and they behave in the goose-stepping tradition of any well-trained Third Reich soldier as they blindly patronise the notion of an authority on a Facebook page that is allegedly supposed to be about the social, about women connecting.  These women have subtly created a paradigm shift wherein they ignore the spirit and meaning of the earlier posts requesting wheelchair access and an openness of discussion.  These women quite simply manipulated the spirit of peaceful dialogue which involves ideas that are different from their own and they framed this dialogue an antagonistic articulatory practice, as combative speech.  In short, they are threatened because the subject with whom they interact does not replicate the ideas and behaviour which they perceive as normative.

Ironically the rules in this particular Facebook group are never linear or respected as many of these complainants are the very people who regularly go off topic and post about being hung over,  vulgar references to “SBS virgins,” their planned drinking,  or about the degree of hangover they encountered at the previous event.  Additionally, there have been constant posts about a lesbian survey which some members found problematic (and those posts were quickly removed). There are endless threads about the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival with specific pandering to certain films of late.  Ultimately, the very organisers of this page and event have actually broken their own rules since they do publicise commercial ventures, they do allow long chats about alcohol, discussions of music (and many women’s loathing thereof), being hungover and they have clearly allowed offensive comments since this thread is replete with them.  Ironically the part of the rules that sates “Feel free to debate among yourselves the fine points of defining ‘offensive’” is an open invitation to invite dialogue on this site about the very terms of discussion  and yet the double standard, once again, is that debate is welcome as long as you concur with the bullies on the thread.

One thing was clear: the rules of engagement on this site are transparently manipulated to eliminate anyone who is not part of the clan, who is not herded into the “simple speak” of tautological obeisance and homage to the “organisers” or revelations of various states of prior inebriation to which much of the site is devoted. [5]  Conterminously the language of deflection to authority against the augmenting bullying merely attempts to justify the abuse by trying to insinuate the three of us as “off topic” when in truth most of this site is off-topic were one to analyse the totality of discussions therein.  Inevitably the fascism of “on” or “off-topic” becomes that measuring rod for disciplining and insulting people who have had a marginal and virtually non-existent presence on this website to begin with.  While these very members’ elaborations of endless Christmas plans six weeks earlier were perfectly acceptable, Susan’s request for wheelchair access was not and somehow this notion became political. [6]  Paradoxically, these bullies would rather rescind their own cognitive abilities to read a thread with objectivity to  realise that they had taken a thread of about eight posts total from various members and turned this peaceful dialogue into the terrain of oppression.  These women consciously fashioned a scene of cyber-bullying bowing to the perceived law of “the rule” rather than cogitate a moment to realise that this was a thread about wheelchair access and ultimately a desire to clarify the “rules” being imposed.

In keeping with the hyper-congratulatory genuflecting that has been going on hand in hand with the bullying Cari writes:

I find it really sad that some people do not appreciate this page and the guidelines that the organisers have asked us more than once to respect. For me this is a social page and is meant for FUN and not really the right forum to express and dictate potential political, extreme and off the wall views. It’s sad that those people can not find the right forum for this elsewhere where views would be appreciated or debated. I KNOW I speak on behalf of MANY SBSettes. So, let’s try and respect the the rules, which is what this initial post was all about.

Here Cari attempts to re-invoke blind authority while manipulating the concept of “appreciation” which once again elides the actual messages posted by myself and the other two women.  Most striking is that she bifurcates the “social as fun” from the pragmatic needs of one individual who physically could not “have fun” because she had no wheelchair access.  As such Cari has no qualms in passive-aggresively entering into the bully pit and feigning a fictional concern.  Later Joanne  makes the comparison between Southbank Surfing and another bedrock of lesbian “intelligentsia,” albeit telling us to “shove off” while oddly grouping us with her perceived “archenemies” from Gingerbeer.  Here Joanne has conveniently grouped us in her will to project one of the greatest racist clichés of all time (“they all look alike”) conveniently transformed into her homophobic rant, “they all sound alike”:

Gingerbeer has some great forums for debates, go have a look, I am sure a few on here would have a great time on those boards…… I left there many years ago due to the intense debates voiced by the same women….. Go on, have a look :) :)….. Please!

And Natasha for whom “fun” becomes the Leitmotif for a bizarre if not unwarranted comparison between feminine hygiene products and the request for open speech and wheelchair access perverts all means to reason by rendering politics as “never fun”:

Since when was SBS and it’s FB page ever about debates? Definitely go to a debate forum for political views. Otherwise it’s like going to a bank to buy tampax. Kinda pointless. Politics is never fun. SBS is.

The bullying took more bizarre twists  to include platitudes of “fun” that were intended  to confuse the reader (for what fun is to one person might not be for the next) while the constant references to “light-hearted” and “fun” were meant to discriminate against an other who was framed as against these “core values” despite the fact that our posts were rather light-hearted and in the democratic spirit of openness.  Hence this discrimination of “fun” was posited as a means of sorting out those who conform to the monolith of one type of  “fun” and “light-hearted” expression from those who do not.  Moreover, were a man to have made these above comments, the reception of this posting would have included accusations of sexism and an entire shutdown of the page. There is nothing “fun” or coherent about a comparison between the purchase of tampons at a bank and the discussion of wheelchair access and open dialogue on a thread dedicated to just that.  Might I add that such a comparison reveals deeply misogynist attitudes generated by these women in their comparing our ideas to feminine hygiene waste.”  Lamentably the tone and aggression in the comments asking us to create our own “debate forum” demonstrates that either these women refused to or were simply unable to  understand cognitively the the initial posts.

Despite the fact that the bullying women were going around in circles writing for another twenty-four posts, those of us who defended Susan’s right for wheelchair access and who questioned the terms of the “rules” remained silent.  We found ourselves with nothing to say to these extremely bellicose women for whom dialogue seemed more a threat than a fun and creative exchange.  To be fair, the bullies’ idea of fun seemed to merge discursively with an unreflected appreciation for the “organisers” despite the fact that nobody put the organisers’ work into question.  It seemed that their attempts to pit us against the organisers was yet another transparent ruse to deny speech and to force conformity to an identity that we simply did not embody.  Because we did not comply to this notion of the “fun,” drunken, party-animal lesbian, we were kicked off the site within a two days and all the bullies whose threads amounted to more than three-quarters of the posts, whose words consistently violated two of the site “rules” were allowed to stay.

There is a famous psychological experiment called the Asch Conformity Experiment conducted by Solomon Asch in 1951.  Asch investigated the extent to which social pressure from a majority group affect individuals to conform to that majority consensus.   Asch used a lab experiment to study human conformity by putting a participant into a group of 5 to 7 “confederates” (other participants who were part of the experiment) whom the participant believes are participants like herself.  The participants were each shown one card with a line on it followed by a card with three lines on it labeled A, B and C.  The participants were then asks to say which line matched the length of the line on first card.  The real participant answered last or next to last.  For the first two trials the confederates gave the right obvious answers.  However out of 18 trials the confederates answered incorrectly for 12 of them.  In the trials where there was no pressure to conform because the correct answer was readily obvious, only one subject out of 35 gave an incorrect answer.  Asch hypothesised that the majority of people would not logically conform to something so obviously incorrect; however when one participant is surrounded by those who voice an incorrect answer, the participants provided an incorrect answer on 32% of the questions with 75% of participants giving an incorrect answer to at least one question.

The Asch Conformity Experiment is used to demonstrate to what length people who are aware of the wrong answer will yield to group pressure to include bullying.  Recent studies in the social sciences as well as anecdotal data have indicated that bullying is more linked to conformity than scientists had heretofore imagined.  Most interestingly is that these bullies of Southbank Surfing in attempting to make us conform to their notion of lesbian identity and demonstrable “fun” behaviour—for that is what is implied within their posts of vitriol and resentment for those who behave differently—are reacting from their own history of their being a product of a system of bullying not so long ago.   Where homophobia once upon a time forced these women to conform to a certain image of “acceptability” through dress, action, language and freedom of expression in much the same way these same women today are attempting to force their notions of “acceptability” and homogeneity onto other women who are simply not exactly like them.

In Japan where bullying has resulted in many suicides of youth in recent years, it has been revealed that the cause of bullying is linked to a lack of respect for individualism and the emphasis placed on young children to conform  to standardisation.  And this is the greatest paradox of all:   the lesbian replicates the behaviour of her previous heterosexual oppressor who judged her, who rendered her mute on her own sexuality and who attempted to force her conform to the “rules” blindly and indiscriminately thrown out as a measure of normalcy.  Today these very damaged subjects utilise the Internet as a surrogate for therapy in attempting to root out difference and to obliterate any lesbian subject who poses a threat to her identity.

For the bully a threat comes in the form of another woman who is merely different from her.  The above comments from these bullies reveal serious issues of self-worth and insecurity for certain. More troubling, however, is that most of these comments belie any notion of security specifically regarding these women’s sexuality.  These bullies’ posts both individually and collectivity seek to confirm the homogeneous space of a sexuality that was once rendered muted and “abnormal” by a heterosexual majority that perceived her as marginal, worthless.  Now that the majority voice has shifted radically and the heterosexual masses have begun to see the correct line and identify it as such, homosexual rights in the UK have been largely vindicated.  It is here where we approach that space about which Paolo Friere forewarned us—for these bullies have co-opted a hetero-social discourse of “normalcy” and invoked this oppressive tactic of conformity in the name of placating their very liminal and insecure notions of their own sexuality and sexual identity.

This begs the question of the possibility of rereading the psychological mechanisms behind homophobia as to include the possible theory that homophobia is rooted in psychological and sexual insecurities and the need to have others conform to the bully’s notion of “normal.”  Studies in recent years have linked homophobia to certain insecurities of sexuality, masculinity and femininity.  However my examination of cyber-bullying reveals that lesbians are every bit as capable of enacting homophobia both online and inreal life through a need to confirm their own sexual identities vis a vis a forced conformism of those persons real or cybernetic who do not reinforce their notions of sexuality and the expressions that are assumed to accompany said sexuality.  This would reveal a mechanism in which lesbian bullies seek to affirm their social-sexual identities within their perception of normative behaviour, reproaching and repressing with violence all who evoke different ideas or behaviours.

It must be said that this sort of self-hating homophobic conduct is not limited to lesbians.  When I attempted to post a piece about the bullying we experienced on a Facebook network called “Wipeout Homophobia on Facebook,” I was met by the verbally violent and abusive founder of this network, Kevin Patrick O’Neil, who surpassed Facebook’s system to hurl expletives and insults at me.  Later he took to writing me harassing and threatening emails.   Having found several articles about this faux movement, I had a conversation with San Francisco journalist, David-Elijah Nahmod, who had written an article regarding  Kevin Patrick O’Neil and his harassment of other homosexuals. [7]   Nahmod noted that O’Neil has actively bullied other gay men and women citing several cases to include that of a woman who was on the verge of suicide whom he harassed.  The dangers of the oppressed becoming the oppressor are not just theories, they are sadly stark realities of today’s world wherein Internet anonymity can easily serve as a veil of cowardice for those who are unable to face them in a therapist’s office.

A few weeks before our expulsion Liz posted this comment an a separate Southbank surfing thread: “Southbank smurfing.“  At the time this comment seemed inapposite, but after further reflection I realise this was the most fitting of all comments to describe that ambience of this very homogenising space.  Smurfs are after all the same—same body side, voices, mannerisms and the only thing that distinguishes them are minor details (ie. a pipe, beard, dress, etc).  Otherwise, the Smurfs are pretty much the same.  The similarity between Smurfs and the bullies of Southbank Surfing is that they are unaware of their own homogeneity.    Contra-distinctly the Smurfs actually have different personalities and there is a heterogeneity of thought in the original comic series as the Smurfs attempt to live in harmony albeit their different personalities.  However the bullies of Southbank Surfing are not accepting of difference and individuality as they reinforce through brute homophobic vituperation their roles as abusers onto the subjects who merely communicated their difference.

 

[1]  Cyberbullying.org.  Includes the first formal definition of cyberbullying by Bill Belsey.  Retrieved on 30 March, 2012.

[2] Katherine Liepe-Levinson and Martin H. Levinson, “A General Semantics Approach to,” Institute of General, 2005: 4-16

[3] Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: Continuum Books, p. 62.

[4] Memmi, Albert.  The Colonizer and the Colonized.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

[5] Here I put “organisers” in quotes as I perhaps ought to have done all along to indicate that the four founders of this event do no organising whatsoever.  This event is a monthly meeting of women at a bar where the work is prepared for by the bar of the British Film Institute.

[6] There are multiple “off-topic” threads on the Southbank Surfing website such as one which begins on 23 February, is 21 comments in length and whose content ranges from “ooh yes please.. more Boy Hags…. and you are a fine one” to “I ummed and ahhed about heading down after Topp Twins too. *-*” to “It’s true. I was really standing outside your house”.   Ironically, since we were kicked off the site, there has been an incredible decline in all member participation.

[7] Nahmod, David-Elijah. “I Took a Stand Against Hate and Paid it Forward.”  http://open.salon.com/blog/davidelijahnahmod/2011/10/12/i_took_a_stand_against_hate_paid_it_forward.