Queerphobia at AB: The Censoring of the Word “Lesbian” on Our School Chromebooks
BY ISHA AGARWAL '23
Last year, all YouTube videos containing the word “lesbian” were blocked on school Chromebooks. While the administration has since removed the censorship, its social impact of sexualizing queer women still stands. This pervasive fetishization stigmatizes and undermines the validity of lesbian relationships, harming the queer community.
As you may have noticed, a school-installed software on our Chromebooks blocks YouTube videos containing certain keywords. This filtration is in accordance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires public schools to block any content that is “obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” Until July 2021, videos with the word “lesbian” in the description, including educational videos like “Word Origin: Lesbian,” were blocked, as shown in the image below. On the other hand, videos with words such as “gay,” “queer,” and “transgender” were not.
According to Amy Bisiewicz, the Director of Educational Technology at Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, a filter was applied last year after an incident involving younger students who accessed “inappropriate sites based on the keywords they used in search engines. As a result, a filtering rule for ‘lesbian kissing’ was applied to our configuration,” she said. Ms. Bisiewicz further added that the filtration was unintentional and that the administration removed it when alerted. She ensured that the AB Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will vet the list of filtered words to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.
Nevertheless, the incident perpetuates the sexualization of queer women. “I don’t believe many people stop to consider how powerful filtering tools are,” Ms. Bisiewicz said. Blocking the word “lesbian” tells lesbian students that their identity is taboo and something to be ashamed of—that indecency and lesbians go hand-in-hand. Thus, even with unbiased intentions, the filtration harmed students and upheld systemic queerphobia.
The LGBTQIA+ Experience at AB
While the censorship incident has been resolved, queerphobia and its underlying stereotypes persist at AB. The GLSEN 2019 study found that 59.1% of LGBTQIA+ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexuality and 42.5% felt unsafe because of their gender expression. Nearly 100% of LGBTQIA+ students have heard “gay” used as an insult.
In fact, several AB students have heard anti-LGBTQIA+ slurs and demeaning phrases such as “that’s so gay” being used in school. An AB student commented, “It’s really hurtful because so many of us are in the closet. We hear what other students say, and it affects us.”
In addition to queerphobia, queer women also face sexism. Lesbian relationships are often viewed through the “male gaze.” Ms. Ryden, advisor of the ABRHS Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) said, “[for] women that identify as [queer], there is a certain amount of fetishization… so [their relationships] are put in terms of desire and pleasure for [straight men] rather than the emotional weight a relationship bears for those two women.”
The media perpetuates the male gaze by sexualizing and trivializing lesbian relationships. For example, searching “lesbian” on Instagram will result in photos of women in compromising positions. On the other hand, relationships between men often appear more “family-friendly” and legitimate. As one student put it, “people who don’t accept gay people will try to make [gay] women date men much more than they will try to make [gay] men date women.” Another student mentioned how a classmate would ask them every day if they were “still gay today.”
The lack of lesbian representation in the media furthers the stigmatization. “Whenever… I want to see myself on screen, it is so hard for me to actually find what I want to look for” said Maci Montenegro ’23, an ABRHS student who identifies as a lesbian.“It’s just frustrating to not be able to see myself.”
The constant invalidation of LGBTQIA+ women often makes it harder for them to even realize their sexuality. A student explained how the fetishization of queer women “made it very difficult for [her] to realize that [she likes] women because the way it’s shown in society is gay men are gay, but women are not.” In addition, Biz Brooks ’23, a non-binary ABRHS student, described how “a lot of people that are assigned female at birth… are taught that they have to just accept things and internalize them rather than going back against them.” This submissive behavior can make it harder for people assigned female at birth to resist societal norms and be open about being LGBTQIA+.
What You Can Do
Queerphobia is heavily intertwined in society, so supporting LGBTQIA+ rights against heteronormativity and cisnormativity is important. You can be an ally in many ways. This section is a starting point for allyship, though it is by no means an all-inclusive guide.
The first step is education. An ally should educate themselves on basic terminology, including various identities and how to respectfully refer to LGBTQIA+ people. An ally should also read LGBTQIA+ stories and follow queer influencers on social media. Joining the GSA is an excellent way to learn about LGBTQIA+ experiences and advocate for change.
After learning about the LGBTQIA+ community, the most important step is applying that education. Normalize pronoun sharing, don’t assume someone’s gender or sexuality, and call out queerphobia. When meeting new people, introduce yourself with your pronouns and use they/them pronouns before you learn someone else’s. Finally, the most crucial step to being an ally is standing up whenever someone makes a queerphobic remark. Call out your friends whenever they make those “jokes.” While these actions are simple, they have the potential to change lives. Check out the below resources for more tips on being an ally.
Lastly, in addition to understanding queerphobia, remember to appreciate the LGBTQIA+ community. As Ms. Ryden said, “you often talk about the struggles [marginalized groups] face… While that is important to address so that you can continue moving forward, there's also the flip side, where you want to celebrate the resistance, celebrate the pride, celebrate everything that this community has done.”
Queerphobia exists within our community—the school’s censoring incident and the exclusion of LGBTQIA+ experiences demonstrate that. While the administration’s removal of the censorship indicates progress, there’s still much to keep fighting for. After all, it is incidents like censoring the word “lesbian” that fuel the sexualization of queer women, intersecting sexism and homophobia.
Even though systemic queerphobia is deep-rooted in society and will require an overhaul of beliefs, your individual efforts matter, too. Each and every ally to the LGBTQIA+ community is invaluable. You can make a difference in someone’s life just by introducing yourself with your pronouns or shutting down an offensive joke. Your actions, your voice, and your empathy do make a difference. Never underestimate your power to push for change.