An open letter to Mr. Mark Zuckerberg
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
I'd like to share with you a very personal account of censorship in the digital age.
About a month ago, during the Gay Pride weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Annual NYC Dyke March, with its festive climax in one of my favorite Downtown spots, the Washington Square. Being an integral and proud part of the community of several thousand march participants and spectators, I documented the happy lesbians parading around and flashing their breasts in the fountain.
It was a cheerful, peaceful and liberating event, much-needed after a couple of dreadful weeks following the devastating news of the Orlando mass shooting. To commemorate this exciting moment, I posted a picture on my Instagram of one happy bull dyke with a cool hairdo wearing nothing but a patriotic American bikini -- the ideal poster girl for this year's NYC Dyke Pride.
Much to my surprise, this nonsexual, joyful image -- after it had gathered many sweet, enthusiastic comments from the march participants and their admirers -- was removed with a dry and sinister message as if from the Big Brother himself, The Censorship Monster robot. The message read: "We removed your post because it doesn't follow our Community Guidelines."
So, my question was and still is: what was so offensive about this nonsexual image and what makes a queer nipple (or, rather, documentation of thereof) so dangerous for the Censorship Monster? And what exactly makes Instagram "Community Guidelines" more superior to the New York City law and the ACTUAL COMMUNITY guidelines, according to which women - either straight or gay - have the right to go topless in public without being harassed, arrested and prosecuted just like in the dark Giuliani era of policing for profit, mass police brutality and incarceration?
The answer is that the social media censors and bullies who report queer art and imagery as "unsafe," "offensive" or "inappropriate" casually execute their dark dirty deeds against queer artists like me only because they know they can get away with it, since there's no arbitrary mechanism in place to defend my freedom of free speech and artistic expression. This has to change.
As someone who has been routinely censored over the course of my 25-year career first as a poet and journalist in Moscow, then as a photographer and multimedia artist in New York, I can testify how devastating and dehumanizing it feels to be censored by an anonymous, non-creative and, in most recent cases, non-human entity. I also know where it all leads.
Back in the early 90s Russia, I've been accused of "open and deliberate contempt for generally accepted moral norms," "malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence," "inflaming social, national, and religious division," "propaganda of brutal violence, psychic pathology, and sexual perversions." Those truly Orwellian charges resulted in two highly publicized criminal cases with a potential prison sentence of up to seven years and eventually led to my exile from Russia -- all because of unfair and unjust censorship.
Is this the society we want to become?
Is this the grim homophobic dictatorship we model ourselves after?
In the mid-90s, when I moved to the Land of the Free, I realized that censorship here was just as prevalent yet of an entirely different caliber and a more subtle, corporate flavor -- with a fake smile, just like in that "friendly message" from the Big Brother schooling me for my alleged "violation" of the utterly hypocritical "Community Guidelines."
Just by comparison, after publishing seven books of writings in my native language and being awarded one of the most prestigious literary awards in Russia, it took me nearly 20 years to find a publisher in the US. And even when my first book in English, Food Chain, has finally come out, it was praised by the independent press but largely ignored by the mainstream media and literary establishment.
America is sure funny this way, especially when it comes to marginalizing any authentic, unfiltered expressions or documents of queer life and sensuality -- unlike the sterile, homogenized mainstream fluff pushed as the "gay norm." The recent HBO miniseries Looking comes to mind as a perfect sample. I was commissioned to do the set photography for it in beautiful and raunchy San Francisco, during the Folsom Street Fair, looking at the enormous amounts of money being wasted on faking "gay lifestyle," while the REAL gay life was bubbling all around us. In the end my name didn't even appear in the credits -- as if the corporate creators of this unwatchable, "Community Guidelines-safe" product were too ashamed to be associated with a free queer radical like me.
My unfortunate experience with online censorship goes back to the early days of MySpace and Blogspot -- remember those? My MySpace profile didn't even last for a couple of weeks, while I spent years fighting Google censorship over The Pinko Commie Fag Blog, my beloved 5-year project that featured the work of dozens of emerging queer artists. Back in 2012, I finally gave it up and it's now a virtual mass grave for the queer soldiers devoured by the Censorship Monster. Ever since, I ditched the hopelessly outdated Blogspot platform for a far more liberal and user-friendly Tumblr, which I still find quite inspiring and stimulating.
In more recent years, I have been censored by YouTube that removed my documentation of Kembra Pfahler's radical feminist performance at the opening of the Whitney Biennial, which contained no nudity. I abandoned YouTube as well and moved to Vimeo, which doesn't seem to censor queer and feminist art quite as aggressively.
Earlier this year, Facebook has suspended both my personal account and fan page altogether and only restored them days later, after the robots-trolls demanded that I submit a copy of my passport (sic! sick!) in order to "confirm my identity" -- and that's after many years of being a proud member of the Facebook community.
I was looking at that fake smile on the Censorship Monster face and couldn't believe my luck! He wanted to eat me for breakfast or lunch, just like many other queer artists who went down silently and gave up social media altogether. Maybe I fought too hard or was too prickly to swallow, or pledged to use my journalistic credentials to fight back -- but my account is still up, at least for the time being.
After over 20 years of living in the US first as a political refugee and now as a proud and law-obedient, tax-paying citizen, I allow myself this critical observation: apparently in America nudity is still such a novelty that it's immediately associated with sex, and sex -- with porn.
Now I beg your pardon: every European or even Russian-born person is well aware of the fact that nudity, sex and porn are three entirely different things. But the Censorship Monster is totally ignorant and oblivious of these aesthetic and anatomic nuances. It screams 'PORN!!!' when it sees a naked human nipple, and isn't it truly sad and disturbing?
Clearly, the Censorship Monster has never been loved, studied art history or human anatomy. However, it remains strong in its rigid conviction that it has the right to brutally police OUR COMMUNITY -- just like those Giuliani's cops! -- instead of JOINING IN the fun. The Censorship Monster assumes it has the right to police for profit, punish and expel, persecute and harass, delete and erase documents of OUR QUEER HISTORY instead of listening, adjusting and evolving, like the rest of us humans do.
Clearly, the Censorship Monster is not human. What is it then? It's a creation of the corporate fascism straight out of Orwell's or Huxley's anti-utopias, now a real-life monster that threatens our fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms. In fact, the Censorship Monster IS the corporate fascism that our parents warned us about, a non-human entity with the abundance of virtual power and a very low IQ, a gangster capitalist serpent that eats its own tail and bites the very hands that built its riches.
Now going back to the corporate "Community Guidelines," a few important questions arise:
WHAT is this mysterious oppressive "community," this shadowy bigot entity that issues these prissy "guidelines" and decides who stays or who/what has to go?
WHO are these anonymous bullies who find perverse pleasure in reporting and censoring independent non-corporate queer artists like me?
And, most importantly, WHY do these online robots-trolls have so much power over the long-time COMMUNITY activists and advocates like myself?
Just a gentle reminder: I've been here long before MySpace, Blogspot and Facebook and I have a strong sense of belonging to MY QUEER COMMUNITY, actively and happily contributing ORIGINAL FREE CONTENT that your ever-growing social media empire feeds on day after day, month after month, year after year. But will it really last?
One thing for certain, Mr. Zuckerberg, you're NOT a friend of OUR COMMUNITY, and I have many cases to prove it. Since the recent 1-Billion-Dollar acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, the censorship has soared, with some of my favorite accounts being erased and countless images of queer art deleted from my own account, none of which were offensive or pornographic.
My dear friend Gio Black Peter, a queer refugee artist born in Guatemala and now based in New York, is one of the champions of the queer resistance against online censorship, with a personal record of 15 (!) uniquely creative Facebook and 7 Instagram accounts deleted without any prior notice or warning, not to mention another 3 on Vimeo and 2 on Vine. Just like virtually EVERY queer artist in MY COMMUNITY, Gio has been a victim of anonymous social media bullying and censorship time and again for simply being who he is - a non-corporate, non-conformist queer artist.
I recently had a chat with Gio about his ongoing battle with the Censorship Monster and he revealed that he simply stopped counting the cases of censorship against him: "There were hundreds. Friends tell me I should post my work on porn sites but I refuse. My work has sexual elements but it's not pornography." I asked Gio about his thoughts on censorship and the infamous "Community Guidelines" being used as a virtual police baton. 'I put on my boxing gloves. -- He smiled defiantly. -- It's a puritanical nonsense. Facebook guidelines were determined by little napoleons that think they have some say in what parts of a person's lifestyle can be embraced and shunned.' Then he pointed out that the censorship baton seems to be routinely employed "only when the "evil" sex is involved," while "violence is still America's sweetheart."
This well might have been a case of David vs Goliath but, luckily, Gio is far from being alone in his fight, with an international following representing the new generation of queer soldiers ready to defend their right to exist and create in the virtual world and on social media.
When the disturbing news came of Dennis Cooper's entire blog being wiped out by Google -- 14 years of the uniquely influential queer work erased with a click of a greasy censor's button -- I realized we've reached that boiling point when we can no longer remain silent. All of us free thinkers and artists must take a stand and address the issue of online censorship head-on, in a serious, adult and dignified way.
Having known both Gio and Dennis for many years, I can testify that OUR COMMUNITY desperately needs radical queer artists like them in order to remind us that we're still alive, that we aren't completely brainwashed and assimilated, that we're still able to think for ourselves and decide what's good and what's not, what's bad and what's wrong, feel the pain and appreciate the beauty of diversity in all its shapes and forms. All of the above, without being scared of saying or posting something "wrong" -- something "unsafe" or "inappropriate" for the internet bullies or your, Mr. Zuckerberg, poorly trained watchdogs, robots, and trolls.
Think of it: this is not just about casually censoring images, removing videos and randomly or maliciously deleting entire profiles without any due process or notice. This is some seriously unconstitutional, un-American, criminal, fascist behavior on the part of mega-corporations that are convinced they're above the law. And this criminal behavior, just like any bullying or censorship, simply must not and should not go unpunished.
We became so dangerously inert and desensitized by the rampant hate and violence on our streets and images of death, destruction and gore poring from every TV and computer screen that when we see something truly pure and beautiful, like a nipple or a naked human body, we find it shocking and offensive. We're starving for love yet we're killing, bullying and censoring each other because we refuse to accept the God-given diversity that makes us human, that makes us uniquely different from one another.
Now back to the tired "Community Guidelines" -- essentially the handbook for the internet censorship, which violates the First Amendment and OUR freedom of speech and expression.
Yet another important question arises: who on Earth does actually benefit from the enforcement of these draconian robotic guidelines imposed on OUR COMMUNITY, besides the Big Brother himself?
I AM THE COMMUNITY, and so ARE YOU -- unless you're one of those anonymous bullies-robots-trolls trying to discriminate against me and violate my creative and artistic freedom, in which case you're the one who should be disciplined and expelled, not the queer artists and activists like us.
Think about it, Mr. Zuckerberg -- unless you want your prudish and increasingly rigid and homophobic empire follow the fate of MySpace and Blogspot. They also thought for a moment they were on top of the world, the ones in charge. Now virtually obsolete, forgotten and abandoned by their former users simply because OUR COMMUNITY got fed up with the lack of nipples.
The online censorship is a scary and serious stuff, which threatens all of us. It's on the rise and we must have an open and civilized debate about it. We must have some sort of arbitrary, democratic mechanism in place to monitor and contain online censorship before it's simply too late. Every case, every image and every document erased, removed or censored by the Censorship Monster should be multiplied and magnified online within a blink of an eye -- the prized images of the corporate fascist oppression that became ever so meaningful and empowering for OUR COMMUNITY.
Let's not forget: we were here long before you and we shall remain standing strong long after you're gone -- just remember that, Dear Censorship Monster. Please don't be so afraid of a queer nipple -- for OUR COMMUNITY sake -- and let's make ART NOT WAR, let's endorse and promote LOVE NOT HATE, let's work and play TOGETHER, not against one another.
PS- Please feel free to post your personal accounts and censored work in the feed below, and let's create The Censorship Monster Archive or, rather, Hall of Shame. Let's stand up to the corporate fascism and defend our rebellious queer spirit. Let us not be deleted, expelled or victimized without any notice or reason by the robot bullies ever again ;-)
Slava Mogutin and Nikki Uberti on the set of Skin Flick by Bruce LaBruce, London, 1998. Censored by Instagram twice on July 28, 2016, for violating "Community Guideline" (and YES, my penis was already covered by The Censorship Monster logo I created)