Pierre Trudeau’s famous comment about the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation seems rather antiquated these days, given that so many of us are sharing information on the Internet that earlier generations of queers saw as private.
It seems I can’t go to a party or get on a bus or grab a cup of coffee, without hearing the word “Facebook” anymore. Embraced for a couple of years by university students primarily in the US, the highly sophisticated (and extremely addictive) social networking website has been grabbing hold in Canada, especially among the tech-savvy arts and activist sets. Within Ottawa’s queer community, it only reinforces the one-degree of separation between most of the people we cruise on dating sites, meet at community events, and march in demonstrations with.
There’s no denying that this kind of “over-sharing” fosters community. In the last few days, I’ve received invitations to barbecues and block parties, been informed of protests being planned for George Bush’s August visit to Canada, and stayed up-to-date on a friend’s bathroom renovations. This is not to mention the daily updates of who’s been hooking up and breaking up. And sites like Facebook have become impromptu gathering places after communities experience tragedies, like the Virginia Tech massacre, the recent high school shooting in Toronto, and closer to home, the beating of Ottawa drag queen Dixie Landers.
But like many people over the age of 25, I initially found the tell-all nature of these websites a little scary. I mean, did I really want to be contacted by the person I sat beside in high school band? And do people really care what I’m eating for lunch or the fact that my cat just puked in the hallway?
Emily Nussbaum is convinced that the evolving definition of privacy in the Internet era represents a generational shift so profound that it’s on par with the introduction of rock and roll in the 1950s. In a recent article in the New Yorker, she writes, “it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones … a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact — quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure.”
Nussbaum maintains that, “the idea of a private life is already an illusion.” And she has a point. Thanks to the archiving powers of the internet, most of us have a “Google trail” that’s more extensive than we’d like it to be. The post-9/11 security chill has meant that the government is ramping up its surveillance and data-mining abilities. A Canadian “no-fly” list just went into effect, containing hundreds of names of people who won’t know that the government regards them as suspicious until they’re stopped from boarding a plane. In Ottawa, city council is reviewing a proposal to install video cameras on Rideau St. And in the US, the names of people infected with HIV will be tracked in all 50 states by the end of 2007.
These are huge invasions of privacy, and we should certainly be fighting any initiatives that track our movements, relationships and health records without our consent. But is it really so much worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago? Certainly not for queer activists, who have always been closely tracked by the police and the state. In the ’60s and ’70s, the RCMP used a controversial “fruit machine” to weed out gays and lesbians from the civil service. And the Toronto Star recently obtained a leaked document from the Toronto police, indicating that gay activists George Hislop and Peter Maloney were spied on in 1993, when both were vocal critics of police behaviour in the bathhouse raids.
So how did the queer community respond during previous periods of state surveillance? With the same defiant, too-much-information approach being embraced by youth today. Publications like The Body Politic (Capital Xtra’s predecessor) spoke boldly about public sex and other taboo topics. In the 1990s, gay writer Gerald Hannon got himself fired from Ryerson University for writing about his experiences as a sex worker. But you know what eventually happened? He got re-instated, though his contract was not renewed. And The Body Politic fought off attempts at censorship. And because of their bravery, queer writers like me are so much freer to write about our experiences.
So how should we counter unwelcome invasions of our privacy? By guarding the information that’s truly private, and sharing the rest — from the mundane to the excruciatingly personal. Let’s really give them something to talk about.