Gary, 37, is a straight man who has been cross-dressing since he was five. Last year, he joined the user-generated online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to contribute new articles and develop existing ones in his chosen profession. But when Gary (not his real name) went searching for information on cross-dressing within the site, what he found both shocked and motivated him.
“I looked at some of the articles in transgender and cross-dressing and found that they were so biased against us and so inaccurate in so many ways,” he says.
He set out to improve gender- and transgender-related articles by creating a new account using his female persona, Alice, and joined more than 200 other people that belonged in Wikipedia’s WikiProject LGBT studies group (WP:LGBT).
Formed in April 2006, WP:LGBT comprises a group of editors, gay and straight, committed to the development of Wikipedia’s LGBT content. According to Sarah, the project coordinator who goes under the name Dev920: “The main function of WP:LGBT is coordinating efforts to improve Wikipedia articles on LGBT people and topics.”
WP:LGBT is the eleventh largest project on the site and, to date, it has covered more than 7,388 articles, a figure that is steadily increasing. It’s a valuable endeavour, especially in a place that has more than two million articles in the English language version alone. Wikipedia is the sixth most-visited website in the world, published in over 250 languages. Combined, it has more than eight million articles under its belt.
Sarah, 18, who lives in Chelmsford, England, says she got involved when she saw the enormous potential and benefits of the project. “I really wanted to improve our LGBT coverage, and though we have a way to go, our article quality has since risen across the board,” she says.
This coverage extends to topics ranging from biographies of LGBT people, media, entertainment, politics, history, science, psychology, sociology, culture and current affairs. “A typical series of random articles in our scope might be ‘Domestic partnership in Tasmania’, ‘Homosexuality in Norse Paganism’, ‘Stonewall riots’, ‘Latter Days (film)’, ‘the Mogul emperor Babur’ and ‘yaoi’,” Sarah says. “We do have a very wide range.”
“It gives people a reference point,” says Alice. “There are large numbers of websites out there that have little snippets of information about things. But the project allows people to bring together that sort of information and then refer back to some of the other websites that have that information.”
Being part of that collaborative effort was what brought 40-year-old Ian, known on Wikipedia as SatyrTN, to the project. Initially involved with developing articles about his hometown, New Hampshire, his focus soon shifted to LGBT-related topics. “Since then, I’ve really enjoyed organising articles, making them more encyclopedic, and interacting with other editors. I guess my main motivation now is the enjoyment of expanding LGBT articles.” While he has only created a handful of new entries, Ian has so far executed over 19,000 edits.
“I think it’s extremely important to make sure our information is correct and truly ‘in-your face’,” Ian says. “With that kind of reliable information available, the LGBT community can only benefit.”
Of course, the project is not without its challenges. Sarah says many articles, particularly about historical figures, often fall into fierce disputation. “We do have problems with historical figure biographies where people cannot bear the idea that their heroes could be gay, and fight tooth and nail to keep such information off their articles, claiming it is ‘inappropriate’, ‘irrelevant’, or ‘mere supposition’. Recently, we had a brief fight over [former South Australian Premier] Don Dunstan, where the main writer was a massive fan but had a problem with writing about his sexuality.”
Anecdotal evidence also points out that GLBT articles encounter a significantly higher amount of vandalism. Says Alice: “Vandalism, particularly in the gender area, is a big issue. There are so many people who come along and add words like ‘fag’ simply to be insulting.” Others are not so brazen. Sarah says that some people “subtly disrupt articles for homophobic reasons while pretending they’re not.
“I think we get far more determined vandals than mere ‘drive-by’ disruption,” she says. “But recognition is half the solution, and the other half is vigilance and swift action.” As a result, systems such as limiting access to certain articles, the establishment of forums and the development of the WikiScanner (which tracks the origin of the person who edits an article) are currently in place to combat these problems.
In the big picture, as cumbersome and annoying these challenges are, they are merely small bumps on a very wide and ever-extending road; one which is paved with knowledge and information. And that, Sarah says, is what it’s all about.
“So many people I talk to assume that ‘Gay is A-OK’, but how can you tell that to the boy from the strict religious family who thinks he’s sick and perverted?” she says. “And even if the boy is okay with himself, what do you tell the family who thinks gay culture is degenerate and homosexuality is a disease one chooses? When people want to do research, Wikipedia is increasingly where they come, and it’s our duty to have the information they want. ‘Imagine a world in which every human being has access to the sum of all human knowledge’ – that’s what we’re doing. WP:LGBT is about providing neutral and factual information, and if one person becomes more tolerant or more aware of their heritage, then our job is done.”
* Surnames withheld
For more information, visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:LGBTSTUD