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Nathaniel Frank

Nathaniel Frank

Posted April 14, 2009 | 04:41 PM (EST)

What to Make of #Amazonfail


I was one of the authors whose book was recently "de-ranked" by Amazon because, according to the company, it "excludes 'adult' material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists... in consideration of our entire customer base." It meant that I and others had trouble finding the book on the site.

My book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America is a thoroughly footnoted, scholarly assessment of a four-page federal statute - -not exactly racy material that must be shielded from the eyes of the young. Ok, I like to think it does have its share of passages that can get your heart rate up: talk of sodomy, showers, and submarines, lies, secrecy, hypocrisy, innuendo, and gossip -- but probably no more than Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho about a sadistic murderer and with a level of sex and violence that has made it inflammatory far beyond what Unfriendly Fire could ever hope for.

Yet American Psycho did not qualify as "adult" material. Though Ellis is not exactly straight, his novel (reportedly) is. A Twitter campaign ensued over the weekend which saw thousands of complaints and a blogosphere extravaganza calling Amazon homophobic and demanding an explanation.

Amazon subsequently dubbed the de-ranking a "glitch," as if to deny that a previous spokesperson had ever admitted the company censors what it considers adult material. A spokesperson called it an "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error" which it would fix pronto. And the rankings have begun to return. Some then theorized that an anti-gay hacker broke into Amazon and was the culprit for the targeting of gay books.

Amazon's "glitch" explanation set off a new series of finger-pointing, this time toward gays and progressive bloggers who were charged with seeing a conspiracy at every turn, obsessed, as the left reportedly is, with inhabiting a victim mentality for all their lifelong days. This charge jibes with a prickly essay recently penned by James Kirchick claiming that gay groups that don't shut down the moment they win a battle reflect "a sense of eternal victimhood" and are the "epitome of neediness and vulnerability."

But it remains unclear how the Amazon glitch became homophobic -- unless there were so many books affected that conspiracy-obsessed, narcissistic gay authors were able to -- perhaps inadvertently -- amass a list of gay-themed books that were affected but which is dwarfed by a still-larger list of non-gay-themed affected books. All of which is certainly possible, and is the explanation Amazon is currently going with.

The fact that Amazon is censoring anything because of "adult" content -- while selling it - -seems totally indefensible. If parents are concerned, it is their job, not Amazon's, to monitor their children's use of the web -- or better yet, to prepare those who are old enough to read books that some books will contain information about tough things, such as love, relationships, and even pleasure.

My instinct has been to believe there is some explanation for all this beyond straight homophobia -- pun intended -- pulsing through the highest ranks of management at Amazon. But one of the most likely explanations -- that a mid-level employee began to tag books as "adult" using very loose criteria -- is still troubling.

If this is indeed what happened, it says some pretty bad things not only about Amazon, but about what probably a large swath of the population assumes but doesn't always articulate: that things gay are automatically sexual and, by extension, bad. It would be pretty ironic if a book about the censorship of a gay presence -- which is what "don't ask, don't tell" succeeded at accomplishing -- was censored because of its gay presence. And censored by a large company eager to profit from selling that book but all too happy to cave to social conservatives griping about gay themes appearing on a website where millions of books about everything under the sun never warrant a peep.

What's been most interesting is to see how different people have read into this episode as a marker of where gay rights stand. Emma Ruby-Sachs wrote on this site that the battle against Amazon "is a sign of significant advancement in the fight for LGBT rights." Larry Kramer told the New York Times that he didn't believe "for one second that this was a glitch" and that "we have to now keep a more diligent eye on Amazon and how they handle the world's cultural heritage." Richard Nash wrote that it doesn't so much matter if Amazon deliberately targeted gay books: "In a world where whiteness and straightness are 'norms' and males benefit from our patriarchial [sic] history, it is always the GLBTQ books, the queer books, the non-normative books that get caught in the glitches, the ham-fisted errors."

This, I think, is where the debate now stands. Too many Americans still can't separate "gay" from "sex." And I don't mean that gays should stop admitting they are sexual beings. I mean gays should be able to be proud and out about our sexuality while not being defined by it, and certainly not being defined by the sloppy assumption that our demand for first-class citizenship is somehow an instance of endemic self-indulgence, an incorrigible impulse toward uncontrollable pleasure-seeking.

As Queer theory has rightly taught, the "problem" with homosexuality in America is really a problem with straight America: until they get over the notion that gay = sex and sex = bad, we'll continue to face the harmful effects of sexual repression, we'll remain vigilant about ham-fisted homophobic glitches, and we'll proudly keep the doors to our gay rights groups wide open.