Posts Tagged lgbt

The AmazonFail Backlash is an LGBTD Issue

–I was born in a system
That doesn’t give a fuck
About you nor me.

Zomby, “The Lie” (sampled from Sizzla, “Born in a System,” via Ricky L, “Born Again”)

The story of #amazonfail that’s being told:

Over a holiday weekend, somebody in France who works on Amazon’s internal database made one simple mistake. As a result, thousands of books were incorrectly flagged as adult, removed from the Sales Rank list, which made it difficult to find these books using Amazon’s Search function, which uses the Sales Rank figures to weight its results. A few authors found out about this, and, through the power of Twitter, a huge outpour of rage and anger sprang up on Easter Sunday. By Monday, after some frantic work during a holiday a weekend, Amazon issued an apology and fixed the glitch. End of story.

But the story hasn’t ended, even though the above explanation has been adopted by the general public, and perhaps the majority of the LGBT community, as well as some of those who had been most active on #amazonfail. I think we’re actually at the beginning of our fight to get to the bottom of this. First of all, this didn’t start over the weekend. As was fairly widely reported on Sunday, Craig Seymour, author of a memoir of his years as a gay stripper in D.C., experienced similar problems in February. He’s recently reconstructed a timeline of his struggle to get Amazon to take any notice. (For the record, Craig Seymour adheres in large part to the above story.)

Amazon’s fail did not begin over the weekend, or even in February, but in the summer of 2008. On July 13, 2008, a Kindle reader asked in an Amazon forum,

I’m just wondering why more lesbian ficiton writers haven’t made their work available on Kindle? Is there some drawback that is alluding me? Most books are available as e-books, why not Kindle?

Author Francine Saint Marie replied, two days later,

Hello there,

Almost all of my titles are published on Kindle and they’re selling, but Amazon refuses to post sales rankings for them. Without a sales rank, a title can’t make the “popular category” lists, and that makes it difficult for the target audience to find it. I have tried to resolve this issue, but Amazon won’t budge on it. My own research indicates that there are other titles in this genre also not ranked, but which, like mine, are definitely selling. Thus, I would have to conclude, based upon my own experience, that the Amazon/Kindle is simply not a very lesbian-friendly marketplace…

You can find both my paperback and Kindle titles by clicking on my name. Still others can be found by searching for FSM in the Kindle store. (On each of my product pages you will find an “also bought” list; those usually will be my other Kindle titles, too.)

Good luck on your quest and very best regards to you–
Francine

Saint Marie has posted her story on AfterEllen, and thankfully, it seems to be disseminating somewhat. I explained in my last post why the so-called “apology” is anything but.

It’s what’s happening now that’s really frightening me. The shitstorm on Twitter, people are now saying, was totally uncalled for, and those who participated in it should be ashamed of themselves. In particular, it’s an excellent case study of how homos (or “liberals” in general) are hypersensitive pansies who will irrationally support any random cause that comes along and sounds sufficiently scandalous. 

I’m a Victorianist, which means that instead of wasting all my time puzzling over this #amazonfail bullshit, I’m supposed to read nineteenth-century British novels. In Victorian novels, if women acted in a manner that might put patriarchal authority into question, they could be labeled “mad,” and put into an asylum against their will. Towards the end of the century, it was more likely to be the specific diagnosis of hysteria than the catch-all accusation of  madness–and this could lead to a “rest cure,” such as that depicted in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the twentieth century, this pathologizing of any form of resistance towards the status quo was more likely to find its target in gays and lesbians. In the twenty-first century, this pathologization continues. Women were liable to be dismissed as acting from irrational hysteria in the nineteenth century, and queers, in this beautiful twenty-first century of ours, face the same charge. We don’t need to give a fuck about what queers have to say, because they’re probably getting their panties in a knot over nothing.

Or: if gay and lesbian were unfairly classified as adult, then that’s just because gays and lesbians are more likely to seek “adult” content; they’re more likely to go for porn than normal people. This is how somebody responded (in part) to one of my comments on Mary Hodder’s guest blog on TechCrunch:

The least persuasive argument here is that “anti-gay books weren’t flagged”. But that’s because they aren’t sexually explicit. Let’s ask this question: does an anti-gay screed get a title GLBT in the first place? I doubt it, because what member of the GLBT constituency, going to that section of the bookstore to find their tribe and buy books, is going to want to have a nasty anti-gay book staring at them? The prudent bookstore would put that back in some other category like “sociology” or “health” or something.

It seems to me that those concerned about trying to screen out adult explicit content either consciously, with eyeballs, or automatically, with a set of tags like “GLBT” and “erotica” simply identified GLBT as a high-probability category for very explicit sexual material.

And in fact their action was legitimate because it *is* a category with a very high probability for sexually explicit material! There’s *nothing wrong* with that. It’s a free country. You can’t ban porn books anymore. You can’t ban even books with some graphic scenes in them. But if they re all in a group to in fact help customers find them better as a sales tactic and as a nod to identity, you can’t then later scream that they were “targeted” in a snafu like this.

I was born in a system that doesn’t give a fuck about you or me.* It doesn’t need to give a fuck about you or me because we’re just hysterical, oversensitive, irrational sub-people who make a huge kerfuffle over nothing. It doesn’t need to give a fuck about me or you because all we want is sex, anyways. I mean who could deny that? And we’re completely irrational when people flag gay and lesbian books as adult that are completely unerotic, because, let’s face it, there are very few books about gays and lesbians which aren’t pornography.

This mess tagged #amazonfail indicated a wound, and now that wound is suppurating. Over the weekend, we found out that gay and lesbian books could be disappeared, and nobody would care unless we raised a shitstorm. But now, the aftermath is all about reinforcing the most damaging stereotypes of queers. This isn’t a fight over censorship, it’s the fucking culture wars all over again. Instead of rendering visible the negative, dismissive stereotypes sexual minorities face, Amazon’s epic fail has resulted in the confirmation of those stereotypes.

Some commentators have noted that this outrage was connected in some way to the battle over same-sex marriage, especially due to the recent legalizations in Iowa and Vermont. For me, it was connected–but I don’t give a fuck about gay marriage, really, speaking for myself. I’ll fight (not to the death, I’m no fucking pseudo-Voltaire) for anybody to marry whoever the fuck they want, but I would never in a million years want to be married to anyone, even if unicorns turned out to be real and marriageable. But this whole equation of LGBT activism, at the present moment,  with gay marriage has not made me a happy dyke. I want to give a fuck about something that has to do with life and living rather than being normal. And the reason  why I jumped on the #amazonfail bandwagon was because it was completely different from the fight for gay marriage.** This wasn’t about being able to be normal, but being able to be. Which is still a major fucking issue. The system doesn’t want to give a fuck about you or me, as the aftermath of amazonfail has shown.

*I realize it’s heavily ironic that I start this post with an epigraph from the words of somebody who only gives a fuck about queers because he wants them to be killed. But that Zomby track is fucking killer, and don’t you dare torrent that shit, because I fucking give a fuck about brilliant underground dubstep producers.

**My other complaint about considering gay marriage as the LGBT issue is that it has resulted in the continued marginalization of transgender folk and transsexuals, discriminated against not just by the straight majority, but, all too often, by cisgendered gays and lesbians themselves. And what about people with disabilities? Are they also hypersensitive, or obsessed aboout sex? Or do they not merit mentioning at all, as is the case in the vast majority of accounts of #amazonfail?

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I’m not #sorryamazon

Of all the blog posts I’ve been obsessively following, Richard Nash’s (the straight white male former head of Soft Skull Press) has been the best at explaining why this issue in particular exploded:

Not so long ago, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer/questioning individuals had bookstores that functioned effectively as community centers—providing books, videos, bulletin boards, safe spaces, workshops, to the community. However, of the course of the past twenty years “mainstream,” heteronormative capitalism made social contracts with GLBTQ persons. We’ll sell you all that stuff, and we’ll give you discounts, and it’ll be even more convenient, and customer service will be more predictable. We’ll have shelves just for you, we’ll have categories and tags that will allow you to find all the stuff you need. (No, no one signed this contract—like the social contract that made democracy, it’s one you go along with, it’s not handed to you at birth, or on reaching the age of majority.)

Amazon breached that social contract. 

A few years ago, I heard Greil Marcus, author of Lipstick Traces, make a comment during a talk that he’s very doubtful of people who claim that such-and-such a book changed their life. As in, if he heard somebody say that Lipstick Traces changed their life, he would think to  himself–really? Sure, it’s hyperbole in a lot of instances, but an understatement in others. Books have saved the lives of me and countless others.

I’m a transwoman. Like so many other transfolk, I’ve contemplated suicide in the past. For years. Made one kind-of attempt. It’s hard to explain to people how much it hurts when you’re treated like somebody you’re not and people can’t, don’t, or won’t treat you like who you really are. Not to mention the public harassment, institutional discrimination, physical violence, economic penalization, etc. etc. etc. you’re likely to face. Knowing that there were other people like me out there wasn’t the only thing that kept me from jumping off the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. What really kept me going, nerd that I am, was that I knew there were smart people out there, and that I knew I could hold their brilliant thoughts, their wonderful humour, their histories of pain, safely within my hands, and that I knew I could just take the pleasure of flipping through their pages when I was crying myself to sleep, or waking up feeling like shit.

The History of Sexuality, by Michel Foucault. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf. Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein. I don’t think I’d be here if those books weren’t on my shelves. All of these were recently deranked by an “embarassing and ham-fisted cataloguing error.” You know what else was deranked? KB’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. And really, that’s what so many of these “adult” books are for so many of us: alternatives to suicide. Then, to have them replaced by books that give us reason to commit suicide. (Why live in a world that has lots of people who still believe “homosexuality” can be cured or prevented? Why live in a world that treats you, at best, as a joke?) It wasn’t just “content” that was made inaccessible. It was everything, it seemed, that created the very possibility of our lives: the gay man able to give up years of self-loathing; the lesbian who doesn’t want to act like a straight woman; the lesbian who does want to act like a straight woman; the crip  (I’m using the term used by the blogger in the link) who would rather have sex than be patronized; the brave soul who realizes that even though she was born a boy, and isn’t attracted to boys either, doesn’t have to live as a boy. This is why, as the disgustingly (if unintentionally) queerphobic meme that’s currently spreading would have it, we’re “hypersensitive,” and “overreacting” to some “harmless glitch.” 

I realized fairly early on (after reading other people’s suspicions) that this couldn’t have been an intentional policy change on Amazon’s part. But if it wasn’t intentional, then what was it? A “conservative” organization that figured out some way to game the system? An attack by hackers who did it “for the lulz”? Some internal prank? A mistakenly ticked box by some stupid Frenchie? (If it were that simple, why couldn’t the appropriate field have been corrected and fixed within seconds instead of days? Can you say Epic IT Fail?) Amazon’s been stringing us along with their disastrous and contradictory PR attempts, and now we’re supposed to accept their “apology” and act like they’re the victims? I’m sorry. That was not an apology. It was “here’s another explanation now leave us alone so we can get back to our Easter dinners you stupid dirtbags.” Amazon front-paged an apology from Jeff Bezos for understocking Kindle 1 in March 2008. Now? Still nothing on the front page. And you still get tons of yuck when you search for “homosexuality.”

I purposely left out the de-ranked book that’s been the most important for me: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. She passed away on the evening of April 12, the day of #amazonfail began. Eve was not just the smartest person in the world, she was also the nicest, and the strongest, and the beautifulest, and I feel so lucky to have been able to take one seminar with her. She would understand our rage. We’ll make sure the kids can order your books for years and years to come.

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AmazonFail Dot Org

I’ve registered http://www.amazonfail.org. (Nothing there yet.)

Amazon’s deranking of LGBT books (along sexuality/disability books) might be the first current event to hit the mainstream media, to earn its “news-worthiness,”  primarily due to Twitter. If there’s an earlier example, please tell me in the comments! This, I believe, is a watershed moment that will be of scholarly significance to any number of fields (communications, digital humanities, new media, social media, PR, IT, LGBT/D activism) and there should be some way to make sure stuff doesn’t fall down the memory hole.

I’m not involved in these fields, nor do I have expertise in digital preservation–nevertheless, I wanted to register the domain name, since I believe there should be some resource that will archive all the tweets and blogs.  Currently, www.amazonfail.com is up for sale at EBay, and the winner will be able to do whatever they want with it. I like the idea of an anti-Amazon spoof site (like http://www.paypalsucks.com), but I really do think that a scholarly resource would be useful, and potentially fun. People should be able to research how this thing blew up on Twitter, and carefully look at what was said when on what blogs and in other forms of media.  So instead of selling it to the highest bidder, I’d like to have some person or institution with expertise in web design and/or digital preservation to take on the implementation of this project.

I’m a grad student with limited time and money. I’ve been, at various points of my life, L, G, B, T, and Q. I’m personally offended by the way Amazon has handled this, and don’t want to let them get off the hook, so I’d like to make sure that neither the mainstream media nor scholars dismiss this as some “glitch” and move on. #glitchmyass!

Suggestions very much welcome in the comments!

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