About a month ago Tom Bianchi found himself locked out of his Instagram account. Bianchi is a well known HIV activist and photographic historian of gay culture, most notably for his photos taken in Fire Island in the 80’s. A photo of his had been reposted on Instagram. The photo, “Untitled 457” (seen below) shows a naked man sitting on a bed, his back to us, looking out a window.

Instagram decided that this photo, with a man’s butt barely revealed, had broken its Community Guidelines.

Bring on the backlash

After a huge amount of pressure and backlash, Instagram re-instated Bianchi’s account.
And while, in my opinion, it never should have been taken down in the first place, it’s great that it is now back up. Tom Bianchi is a Queer hero. He has chronicled LGBTQ history for over 20 years.

But what happens when you aren’t Tom Bianchi, with a huge fan base willing to come out and fight for you? What about young queer and trans artists out there struggling for recognition, chronicling the world around them, whether through photos or videos or writing, who don’t meet the standards of Instagram or Facebook, or Tumblr? Who stands up for them?

I stayed out of this public debate. I decided that I wanted to stand back and wait, to see where things headed: if there would be any real change in how Social Media and the Mainstream Media handled our sexuality and our bodies.

That change never came

Instead it feels like we keep moving slowly in a direction that is more repressive: restrictions put on our physicality, on our sexuality, on our gender: and how we are allowed or not allowed to express these things.

In 2019 many young artists’ careers live and die because of social media. It is a way for someone relatively unknown to build a following, to create a network of fans, to gain exposure.

It is a way to create visibility for a community often forced into the shadows. And that is important.

As queer people, our bodies and our sexuality have been used against us for decades. Our gender has become political. Who we love and how we love, who we fuck, is political.
Facebook recently added to their guidelines a ban on all images and writings (including your private chats) that were soliciting sex or graphic in nature.

This means that technically you aren’t even allowed to have sexy chat in your private messenger on Facebook between consenting adults.

The end of Tumblr

Tumblr purged all accounts and images with nudity and overly sexual content, often times including shirtless gay men.

For a long time my ex-husband, Alex and I, used Tumblr, as a way to flirt. We created a joint account and we would add pictures of guys we found hot.

We would take pics of ourselves: I won’t lie, my ass and dick, pics of me getting fucked, were all over Tumblr.

You can have your opinions about this and your feelings and thoughts, but the truth is, we were just having fun. We were flirting, we were venturing out into a larger arena and expressing and exploring our sexuality.

And from the comments, and the amount of followers we had, people seemed to be enjoying our new exhibitionism.

We live in a world where sexuality, especially Queer and Trans Sexuality, are demonised. A world where our bodies are politicised and scrutinised: where a female nipple, the hint of balls, too much exposed ass, is considered “porn” even when the context is art, or just naturalism.

Moral judgements on love and sex

A world where how we fuck and who we fuck: how we love, is judged amoral.
One of the excuses being used by Social Media platforms is that we live in a global community and while they don’t believe in censorship, they also want to be sensitive to other cultures and groups who don’t share the same values.

So… we don’t believe in censorship but we are going to censor you because we don’t want to upset a group of people who find your sexuality and your body to be morally wrong. Got it Instagram. Thanks.

I’ve thought a lot about how to respond to all this. I’ve tried to understand that companies like Instagram and Facebook have a right to define the content that is seen on their platforms, but to be honest, fuck them. Enough is enough.

Let’s call it like is: censorship

As queer people we have lived our whole lives being censored. We have been shamed and made to feel unworthy. We have been shoved to the side so as not to upset groups who find our way of life to be amoral.

I’m not arguing for allowing “porn” or graphic sexual images on Facebook on Instagram. But what I am saying is that showing some ass, or women showing their breasts, or shirtless guys, or queer people kissing should not be something we should be afraid of showing for fear of being locked out of our accounts.

It’s hard for me to make sense of this: it goes against everything I believe. It goes against everything I think is logical.

Human beings are sexual creatures. Fucking is fun. It is hot to look at pictures of other people fucking, showing off.

But there’s another component here that isn’t just about sex: our bodies are vast, uncharted, and beautiful territories: they are gorgeous and full of artistic and creative potential.

Why can’t we show this off?

Why are we so afraid of allowing people the opportunity to explore their otherness, their gender, their sexuality, their beauty, their humanness?

I think it’s great that we all came out to fight for Tom Bianchi. But we need keep fighting. We need to keep the pressure on.

I show ass all the time on my Instagram account. I talk about being HIV Positive. I try to be as sex positive, and proud of who I am as a 50-year-old-HIV-Positive-Queer-Man as I can be. And I refuse to hide or to back down. I refuse to be made invisible.

Shadow banning on Instagram

I’ve been “shadow banned” (a process where with no warning or notice Instagram removes your ability to be seen on hashtags), I’ve been reported and I’ve been blocked on all my social media accounts. I’ve received threatening and incredibly unkind messages from users who troll the internet looking for people to attack.

I’ve been called a slut, told I deserve to die from AIDS, that I am a worthless fag. But I don’t back down.

Because we can’t let them silence us. We are beautiful. Our bodies and our sexuality, our gender, our fluidity.

It is easy to believe that we had a major win last month. Instagram caved. Bianchi is back up. And that is a win. A huge fucking win. But we need to make sure we are still out there, celebrating who we are, and being as loud and as queer as possible.

We are only silenced if we let them silence us

We are only invisible if we let them take away our visibility. I’m gonna show ass and talk about being Queer and Positive and be who I am, as loud and as visible as possible.

And fuck anyone who tries to tell us we aren’t worthy, who tries to censor us or push us to the side.

So go be as queer and beautiful as you want. Show those bodies. Make out on the streets. And stand up for those of us who might live in places where they are living under oppression.

Because that’s what these platforms don’t get: by allowing people like Bianchi, or someone like me, or any of the other LGBTQ people out there who refuse to back down, to be vocal and visible we are giving a voice to those still living in a world where their voice is being suppressed.

That should be what our community guidelines stand for. Not more censorship.

Jeff Leavell is a writer living between Los Angeles and Berlin.  You can follow him at jeffleavell.com or on his instagram, @leavelljeff 

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