THE BLOG
09/10/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The First Word I Ever Googled: Why Online Privacy Is an LGBT Issue

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The first word I ever Googled was "transgender."

This was in 1995, so I didn't actually Google it per se. Larry Page and Sergey Brin hadn't even developed the first Google algorithm at that point, so if you wanted to find something on the Internet, you went to Yahoo! and looked it up in their directory. And if you were lucky, you discovered that some generous soul had taken the time to put up the content you were looking for and had listed it there.

I was on a Department of Defense computer at the time, in my wife's office in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where we were both assigned as U.S. Army lieutenants. She was finishing a late-evening meeting with her soldiers; I'd sent mine home an hour earlier and was waiting for her to wrap things up so that we could head back to our own quarters. It seemed safe enough. I'd already had a lifetime to learn to look over my shoulder, and I knew I'd have plenty of time to close the browser window before anyone came into the room, so I felt safe clicking on the first site I found. I read; I learned. Eventually I clicked the "back" button to find another site.

That's when I noticed that the first link I'd clicked had gone from blue to a deep purple. My blood ran cold: The computer was keeping a record of the sites I'd viewed.

I panicked.

It took me five long minutes to figure out how to clear the history, five minutes of terror, five minutes spent imagining what it would cost me if I couldn't cover my electronic tracks: my marriage, my career, everything that mattered to me. I poured through menus, clicked through settings, found what I was looking for, and was just closing down Internet Explorer as I heard her footsteps coming down the hall.

I didn't know that night that I was taking the first steps on a journey to health and wholeness -- and I didn't know where the pitfalls and land mines lay along that path. That first experience gave me pause, but what I'd learned instilled in me such a hope that soon I was installing America Online on our home computer, discovering more, finding other people like me. Over time I learned better ways of protecting myself as I searched for the information that, a decade later, would lead me to a therapist's office and, eventually, to come out to my wife and to the world. Online privacy was something that was important to soldiers like me long before it was a household word.

Jump ahead a decade or so. I'd left the military by that time, but all over the world lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) service members were following the path I'd walked 10 years earlier: reaching out online, getting connected, relying on what privacy and safety the Internet afforded them to learn and grow. Only now they were doing something more: They were getting organized. While many of us were just beginning to imagine a world without "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), these brave troops were preparing themselves to play a crucial role in making that world a reality. The network they were building, using a new generation of social tools like Facebook, was strong, but it had one glaring weakness: Its security was completely dependent upon the policies and the precautions put in place by the companies that hosted it. It seemed like a worthwhile and manageable risk, but still, they were vulnerable.

Today DADT is just a memory, and gay and lesbian service members and their families enjoy growing acceptance in their units and in military communities everywhere. Nevertheless, a large percentage continue to rely upon private social networks to learn, grow, and connect -- aware that formal, legal equality has not yet led to equal treatment and equal opportunity everywhere. And today they are vulnerable in ways no one had even imagined just a few years ago.

Consider this: In 2006, as part of a contest to improve its recommendation system, Netflix released to the public information on the viewing habits of nearly half a million customers, information that had been scrubbed of all identifying data. Within weeks, two University of Texas researchers were able to identify many of those users by name simply by comparing the scrubbed Netflix data with other publicly available information. Among those whose identities were compromised: a lesbian woman who had, up until then, kept her sexual orientation a secret in her community. The woman later sued Netflix for privacy invasion, alleging that being outed "would negatively affect her ability to pursue her livelihood and support her family and would hinder her and her children's ability to live peaceful lives." These are the very same concerns that drive so many gay and lesbian troops to identify as such only online.

For transgender members of the armed forces, the stakes are higher still. Transgender troops did not benefit from DADT's repeal, and outdated, obsolete military regulations still bar them from serving (despite the fact that transgender people serve openly today in the militaries of the UK, Israel, Canada, Australia, and nine other nations). Just talking to a therapist is enough to cost them their jobs and get them kicked out of the military. Their situation is precisely the same as that I faced the first time I looked up "transgender" on my wife's government computer in 1995 -- precisely the same, that is, with one crucial difference: Protecting one's identity online has become much more difficult. Despite this fact, transgender service members have begun to organize themselves and their allies for change -- and a safe and secure Internet is a critical resource for that organizing. In today's world, positive change can't happen without it.

That's why I'm looking forward to the LGBT Technology Partnership's Fall Policy Forum, this Thursday in Washington, D.C. This first-of-its-kind event will bring together technology, privacy, security, and policy experts with members of the LGBT community for an open dialogue about the impact of these issues on LGBT lives. I'll be moderating a panel on security, privacy, and online safety with leaders from Facebook, the National Cyber Security Alliance, the Trevor Project, and other organizations. I hope you'll join us.

The first question I plan to ask them is, "What is the first thing you ever Googled?"