How Anti-LGBTQ Web Filters Stand Between LGBTQ Youth and the Online Resources They Need

Blog Post
Naumova Marina/
June 1, 2022

As a flurry of bills aiming to limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools make their way through legislatures across the United States, more LGBTQ youth may soon be forced to turn to the internet for health care resources and emotional support. LGBTQ youth who are unable to find online LGBTQ resources at home—either because they do not have home internet access or because they cannot risk being caught by their families—often have no choice but to search on computers at their schools or their local libraries.

However, at some schools and libraries, web filters prevent LGBTQ youth from accessing vital online resources, like information on health and sexuality topics, confidential crisis counseling services, and news updates on current events concerning LGBTQ rights. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, if a public school or library explicitly blocks non-sexual, pro-LGBTQ websites without blocking anti-LGBTQ websites, “it’s viewpoint discrimination and it violates students’ rights under the First Amendment.”

In February 2011, the ACLU launched a campaign called “Don’t Filter Me,” investigating reports of anti-LGBTQ, viewpoint-discriminatory web filtering being employed at public schools across the country. As it turns out, many schools had adopted LGBTQ and sexuality filters under the assumption that they were pornography filters, while other schools did not even realize that they had these kinds of filters instituted in the first place. The ACLU convinced many of these schools—and even major web software filtering companies—to ensure that their filters no longer blocked non-sexual, pro-LGBTQ websites, improving information access for students nationwide.

When Missouri’s Camdenton R-III School District pushed back, claiming that the Children’s Internet Protection Act required it to employ technology to block children’s access to obscene content, child pornography, and content considered harmful to minors, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit. According to the ACLU, the school district’s database configuration was viewpoint-discriminatory—blocking non-sexual, pro-LGBTQ websites alongside “sexually explicit” websites under the filter of “sexuality,” while allowing anti-LGBTQ websites under the filter of “religion”—whereas other CIPA-compliant filtering systems were not. The court sided with the ACLU, and, in a March 2012 settlement, the school district agreed to adopt a more viewpoint-neutral filtering system.

Despite all that “Don’t Filter Me” accomplished, it did not spell the end of anti-LGBTQ web filters in public schools and libraries. In one nationwide 2019 study, just over half of students with internet access at school reported being able to access LGBTQ-related information using school computers. In other words, almost a decade after “Don’t Filter Me,” millions of students across the country were still unable to use school computers to access non-sexual, pro-LGBTQ websites.

In November 2021, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas’s Katy Independent School District was blocking online access to important LGBTQ-related news and resources—including websites run by The Trevor Project, the Montrose Center, Human Rights Campaign, and The Advocate—under a filter titled “Human Sexuality.” In an online petition against this filter, which garnered nearly 2,000 signatures as of May 26, Katy ISD students added that the filter had previously been called “AlternativeSexualLifestyles(GLBT)” as recently as June 2021, and that, for comparison, Katy ISD did not block InfoWars, a far-right news website known for its anti-LGBTQ content.

Echoing the argument made a decade earlier by the Camdenton R-III School District, a Katy ISD spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle that the school district “​​depends on outside school-based platforms to categorize content and filter content that aligns with CIPA compliance.”

In light of community backlash and an influx of news coverage, Katy ISD quietly unblocked websites run by the Montrose Center and Human Rights Campaign sometime before January 25, 2022. However, The Trevor Project’s website remained blocked. A Katy ISD spokesperson attributed this to the fact that The Trevor Project’s website facilitates communication between minors and young adults, making it an “area of concern” for schools and libraries attempting to ensure safe chat room communications in compliance with CIPA. Why the website is still blocked under a “Human Sexuality” filter if sexuality is not the core issue is unclear. Furthermore, according to Katy ISD senior Cameron Samuels, Facebook and Twitter—where minors can communicate with adults of any age, not just young adults—are “completely accessible.”

​​“The assumption that people communicating on the Trevor Project are predatory is bigoted and homophobic,” Samuels wrote. “It’s more important to a student to offer life-saving support than to provide a portal to all the misinformation and hatred about queer people being propagated on major social media sites.”

To protect the first amendment rights of LGBTQ youth, we need to address the creation and use of harmful web filters and the impacts they have on vulnerable groups. If you or someone you know is blocked from visiting non-sexual, pro-LGBTQ websites at school—especially if anti-LGBTQ websites are still accessible—the ACLU invites you to email or call (212) 549-2673.

If we want the internet to be equitable to LGBTQ youth, we must ensure not only that they have fixed home broadband access and end-to-end encryption, but also that this access extends to the online resources and virtual spaces they need to thrive.

This blog post is part of a series examining the unique impacts of tech policy on LGBTQ youth. Read more:

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