This chapter will focus on the history and impact of LGBTIQ+ contributions to Wikimedia projects through the personal experience of one WIkipedian. This chapter will also explore the global thematic chapter Wikimedia LGBT+ and the community it builds and supports.
Image credit: Wikimedia LGBT outreach logo
LGBTIQ+ Wikimedians are a diverse, intersectional group within the Wikimedia community. This chapter will focus on the history and impact of LGBTIQ+ contributions to Wikimedia projects, international journalism, public health education, and community activism through the personal narrative of one Wikipedian. This chapter will also explore the global thematic chapter Wikimedia LGBT+ and the community it builds and supports through the Wiki Loves Pride campaign, LGBTIQ+ themed edit-a-thons, and intersectional Wikimedia work. Wikimedia LGBT+ has grown from a handful of Wikipedia editors to a global, multilingual, multiracial community of Wikipedians, librarians, cultural heritage institutions, activists, scientists, open access enthusiasts, human rights supporters, Pride event organizers, and LGBTIQ+ youth and allies due to social media connections. Anyone can follow the group’s current activities through the Wikimedia LGBT+ Twitter account and Facebook page, innovations which have made the movement and its work much more accessible to those just learning about Wikipedia. For LGBTIQ+ people and those searching for LGBTIQ+ information, Wikipedia has proven invaluable in countries where LGBTIQ+ publications, media, or visibility may be criminalized or cut short due to AIDS NGOs leaving those countries. The author of this chapter will talk about how they got involved with Wikimedia LGBTIQ+, how it has changed over the years, and the impact of these changes for the future of LGBTIQ+-related Wikimedia projects and other LGBTIQ+ initiatives related to activism, community building, and social support.
LGBTIQ+ people have engaged in Wikimedia projects from their inception. Over the past twenty years, their contributions have ranged from developing and improving LGBTIQ+-specific content in most language Wikipedias, making LGBTIQ+ people, landmarks, and events visible through the Wiki Loves Pride photo campaign, and implementing guidelines around using appropriate LGBTIQ+ terminology for Wikimedia projects such as Wikipedia and WikiData. More importantly, LGBTIQ+ Wikimedians work hard to build a collegial, inclusive community through partnerships with multiple groups and the use of social media to collaborate and promote each others’ work, and to provide support and action steps for colleagues who may encounter harassment or discrimination in Wikimedia spaces. This work that we do to provide accessible, authoritative, frequently updated LGBTIQ+ information online—and building friendly, inclusive spaces to do this work—is activism, particularly for those individuals working from countries where LGBTIQ+ existence of any kind is under threat.
A recent New York Times article has focused primarily on the negative aspects of Wikimedia work for LGBTIQ+ editors, perpetuating anxiety over hostile environments that exist in Wikipedia (Jacobs, 2019). While the hostility that some editors face is very real, it perpetuates a narrative as LGBTIQ+ person as passive victim. The title of the article also implies that Wikipedia is not a social network (Jacobs, 2019). This is far from the complete story of what it means to participate in Wikimedia projects as an LGBTIQ+ person,. Veteran LGBTIQ+ Wikipedian Lane Rasberry (User:bluerasberry) asked me to contribute a chapter to this anthology because of my involvement in the movement and the research I have done on the history of LGBTIQ+ engagement in Wikimedia projects. I do not want to plagiarize myself, so I have listed the citations for those works at the end of this chapter. What I will focus on instead is my personal journey into the Wikimedia community, and my engagement in the movement, while crediting all of the people who have provided support and accomplished great things along the way.
What initially attracted your attention to Wikipedia?
Although Wikipedia launched on January 15, 2001, my memories of retrieving Wikipedia articles in Google searches only begin several years after that. Prior to 2008 I worked as a culinary school librarian, during a time when the most authoritative information about food history and food in culture came from print books, scholarly journal articles, or conference proceedings. At the time, Wikipedia articles about food were just emerging as stubs and starts—they could not replace the traditional scholarly and professional works in that discipline.
During my culinary school years, I also began to freelance writing and editing encyclopedia articles. I learned a great deal about encyclopedia publishing during this time, in particular the dishonesty of some encyclopedia publishers. At the time, some encyclopedia publishers were compiling reference works about notable living people. In STEM and other fields, the most comprehensive, current information you will be able to locate about most of these people are from professional publications or blogs. Some of the most influential researchers and innovators—particularly those who are women, people of color, LGBTIQ+, or from the Global South—do not have books or other encyclopedia entries about them from which to cite. And yet some encyclopedia publishers want their contributors to “fake” a reference list. In other words, they will require a “Further Reading” section to accompany the entry, but the contributor cannot include the true sources of information for that entry—only what “looks” appropriate for high school or undergraduate research.
In 2008 I started a new job as an academic librarian at a four year higher education institution. I taught an undergraduate course called “Research Methods” during my probationary years, where students learned how to locate, evaluate, and cite information from the library and from free online resources. This era marked the decline of encyclopedias and traditional print reference resources in libraries due to the ubiquity of free online resources like Wikipedia. I knew my students were using Wikipedia to do their research simply because it was easy and convenient, but not necessarily because it was better. I created an assignment for my students where they had to locate a traditional encyclopedia entry and a Wikipedia article on their semester research topic, and compare the two for authority, comprehensiveness, citations, validity, and neutrality. In almost every situation, the Wikipedia article on their topic was much more effective in providing background knowledge on their topic than the encyclopedia entry. Development of the Wikipedia article was also transparent and honest, and one could see for themselves the sources of the cited information. People could make an educated decision on whether or not they would use the article based on references, or based on the WikiProject’s quality scale, commentary from Wikipedia contributors, and currency of edits. I began to wonder who all of the people were who worked on Wikipedia articles, where they were, and why they did it.
As Collection Management Librarian and LGBTIQ+ Studies Selector, I focused on the digitization of print books, and realized that almost no award-winning core LGBTIQ+ texts were digitized at the time. I honestly believed that these books would be lost forever and wanted all librarians, LGBTIQ+ authors, and vendors to know! In 2011, I wanted to contribute a chapter to Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive (Litwin & Kumbier, Library Juice Press) on this topic based on the research I presented at the Acquisitions Institute (Wexelbaum, 2011). I was too late to submit a chapter, but editors Rory Litwin and Alana Kumbier were kind enough to connect me with Library Juice Press’ Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies editor Emily Drabinski, who encouraged me to edit an entire book on LGBTIQ+ digital practices in libraries, archives, and museums. Of course I wanted to have a chapter on LGBTIQ+ Wikipedia and how libraries engaged with that work at the time. Katie Herzog from the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles reached out to me to co-author the chapter. To anyone’s knowledge, the Tom of Finland Foundation would host the first LGBTIQ+ edit-a-thon in the world—and they would be the first LGBTIQ+ cultural heritage institution to do so as well. Adrienne Wadewitz provided training and support at this event, a testament to her support of LGBTIQ+ Wikipedia work. Katie provided photos of this event, and I thank all of the people who graciously gave permission to have their photos published in the book. Thanks to Katie, I got connected with the LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians’ listserv—we were not yet an official thematic usergroup at the time. I believe that she used this listserv to promote the edit-a-thon, and I used the listserv to reach out for the first time to LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians who might want to contribute to the chapter. This is how I first met Lane Rasberry and Fae, who had both been engaged in the movement since the beginning, intentional about improving LGBTIQ+ content in Wikimedia projects and building the community. I co-wrote the chapter—“Queering Wikipedia”--with Katie and Lane Rasberry—to document this event and to inform the library community about Wikipedia and provide an example of how one institution collaborated with LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians to improve LGBTIQ+ Wikipedia content AND promote the Tom of Finland Foundation as the source of some images and rare books cited in the entries.
In 2014, I found out about an Art + Feminism edit-a-thon that was happening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I wish I could remember how I learned about this event, because if an individual had personally invited me I would love to thank them here. I know that this is where I met Margit Wilson, one of the people who brought the Art + Feminism movement to Minnesota. I had no idea at the time that Art + Feminism was intentional in its efforts to recruit female librarians in order to recruit more female identified editors. I just know that I was happy to get an invite and have an opportunity to learn more. I even had a plan for what I wanted to do at the event. I created my first Wikipedia article at that event—an article about Latina lesbian librarian, archivist, historian, and activist Yolanda Retter. This experience led me to edit and create more content, which led to Lane Rasberry giving me information about a Wikipedia North America conference in New York City. That year I organized my first edit-a-thon at the institution where I worked (the first edit-a-thon for them as well) and submitted a conference proposal on female bonding at Wikipedia edit-a-thons (cite here). My proposal was accepted, I had gotten a full scholarship to attend, and that is where I finally met Lane in person, along with Richard Knipel (User:Pharos) and Jason Moore (User:AnotherBeliever), plus other people in the United States engaged in the Wiki Loves Pride campaign and the emerging Wikimedia LGBT+ User Group. All of the people I met were supportive, open to hearing about my Wikipedia experience up to that point, and discussing topics at the conference. The Wikipedia North America conference blew my mind; it was there that I learned how people used Wikipedia for social justice purposes. People like Lane Rasberry used Wikipedia to provide up to date information to people in other countries who had little access to libraries or healthcare professionals about HIV and AIDS prevention. Professors used Wikipedia as a teaching tool for open pedagogy, where they would have students learn about a topic by editing and creating Wikipedia articles about that topic.
After attending that conference, I became an engaged WIkipedian, I continued to organize edit-a-thons in Minnesota, working with Minneapolis Central Library staff Ben Weiss and Margit Wilson, Quatrefoil (Minnesota’s independent LGBTIQ+ lending library), and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts librarians Janice Lurie and Meg Black. I became a state resource for librarians who wished to learn more about Wikipedia or host edit-a-thons, and presented at state and national conferences to educate librarians and archivists about Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, and how to use it as a tool to increase visibility of marginalized populations as well as visibility of collections and our state’s contributions to the world. The more I became engaged with Wikimedia projects and communities, however, the more I began to interact with people outside the United States—particularly those who identified with LGBTIQ+ and other marginalized communities. I thank social media for this, as well as my increasing comfort level with communicating through talk pages.
What has changed since then?
On a personal level, I am intentional in my Wikipedia work. When I create new Wikipedia articles, I make notable LGBTIQ+ people visible to a global audience. Whenever possible I will add new content about LGBTIQ+ people of color, LGBTIQ+ people from non-English speaking cultures, because so often these people do not get the credit they deserve. I added gay African-American photographer Alvin Baltrop to Wikipedia because he died a penniless, homeless Vietnam veteran, discriminated against by the rich white gay gallery owners. And yet everyone—especially New Yorkers from the 1970s and 1980s—knows his photos. Alvin Baltrop should always be remembered as one of the greatest photographers of all time, who documented gay history and culture that is only now being made visible in movies and television shows for white mainstream audiences. When I edit existing Wikipedia articles, I often “queer” the content. For example, in the Wikipedia article about St. Patrick’s Day parades, I added a section about the history of LGBTIQ+ discrimination in these parades, and when the Irish LGBTIQ+ groups were allowed to march in the parades. Adding relevant, cited content about how LGBTIQ+ people are impacted by something, or how they influenced something, communicates to the world that LGBTIQ+ people are indeed a part of it. Adding such content to Wikipedia also stimulates discussion in and out of Wikimedia spaces about terminology, intersectionality, and inclusion, challenging binaries and decentering white Christian cisgender heteronormativity.
My intentionality in my Wikipedia work extends to community building. I encourage and invite new editors and up and coming Wikipedians into our circles, just as experienced Wikipedians had done for me. While I do this on a local level through edit-a-thons and conference presentations, I also do it on a global level through Twitter. I also do my best bridge the intersection between librarians and Wikipedians. I am now beginning to ask librarians, archivists, and cultural heritage institution workers what they need to support edit-a-thons. In non-English speaking countries, it is not the norm for libraries, archives, or museums to host edit-a-thons—especially for LGBTIQ+ communities—and I am trying to find out why that is so that LGBTIQ+ libraries, archives, and museums can do better to support their communities. My starting point to this research will be to present on a panel of LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians at an international LGBTIQ+ libraries, archives, and museums conference (ALMS).
On a global level, online communication has improved. In the beginning of Wikipedia’s history, active Wikipedians communicated through Talk pages on Wikipedia. The rise in popularity of social media and video conferencing apps have made it much easier for Wikipedians around the world—LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians in particular—to communicate and collaborate. The advent of social media has made it much easier for Wikipedians around the world to get to know each other, collaborate with individuals or intersectional initiatives, help with translations, and help to locate Creative Commons licensed or public domain images. This has been the greatest boon to LGBTIQ+ Wikimedia activities, making them While attendance at conferences really helps Wikipedians to connect and network, their work can continue beyond traditional conferences. In August 2012, Wikimedia LGBT+ established a Twitter account, and in August 2013 created a Facebook group. Decisions to create new online communication channels often happen during conferences. At Wikimania 2016 in Montreal, Signal and Telegram were added as communication media to be more inclusive of people from countries who might not be able to speak freely about LGBTIQ+ related topics or Wikipedia. In 2019, Wikimedia LGBT+ began making use of Zoom to organize and host monthly online meetings for any LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians who would like to participate. Monthly meetings are scheduled and promoted through the Wikimedia LGBT+ Talk page and the Telegram group. These opportunities have enabled me to increase my engagement and influence within the Wikimedia community.
In 2017 I asked if I could become the Wikimedia LGBT+ Twitter administrator to promote Wiki Loves Pride events and LGBTIQ+ holidays, in addition to connecting LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians with each other. In a short time we went from 73 followers to over 26,000 from around the world. While a significant number of Wikipedians—LGBTIQ+ and allies—from around the world follow us, including national Wikimedia chapters, we also have librarians, open access advocates, tech people, scientists, academics, and LGBTIQ+ youth from around the world. This is significant because LGBTIQ+ youth are always looking for connections to LGBTIQ+ community, and Wikimedia LGBT+ provides a supportive space for them. We share photos of edit-a-thons and other LGBTIQ+ Wikimedia events that take place around the world, as well as retweet photos of Wikimedia events that take place in the Global South and regions just starting to develop Wikipedia community. The Twitter account also allows LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians to collaborate with WikiWomen in Red, AfroCROWD, and any other organization engaged in intersectional Wikipedia activities. My slogan “Edit loud and edit proud!” is often retweeted and used in promotional materials for LGBTIQ+ edit-a-thons. With permission, I will give “shout outs” to those LGBTIQ+ Wikimedians who do phenomenal work. There are still people out there who do not grasp that real humans do this work, and that those doing some of the best and bravest work right now are under 30.
Over the past 20 years, Wikimedia LGBT+ members have provided leadership in governance and policymaking in all Wikimedia Foundation endeavors. They have played a major role in the development of codes of conduct and community guidelines, as well as educating Wikimedians about LGBTIQ+ terminology and how to write about LGBTIQ+ issues and people. Wikimedia LGBT+ has done a great deal to remind people in the movement never to take Internet privacy for granted, and have had a few frank internal conversations about the successes and challenges of Wiki Loves Pride photo campaigns in different parts of the world. I believe that, as our global thematic chapter grows, and becomes more representative of the global population, we will continue to have these frank conversations and take better care of each other in solidarity.
The media is making people more aware of the global communities that engage in Wikimedia projects related to marginalized populations. Instead of highlighting the good that these communities do, however, the media often paints our communities as victims of harassment and discrimination in the Wikimedia spaces that we occupy. It is true that there are people involved in Wikimedia projects who are trolls, bullies, stalkers, and harassers, and it is true that these people cause harm. At the same time, the journalists who cover Wikipedia do not talk about how fellow editors and the Wikimedia Foundation combat this inappropriate, criminal behavior—even though the people who they interview talk to them at length about these efforts.
Wikimedia LGBT+ does a great deal to support and defends its own. When an LGBTIQ+ article is identified for deletion, or if we know that someone in our community is being treated inappropriately, communication takes place immediately through our online channels and several of us will either defend the article, a person, or both. This approach often is sufficient to halt the bad behavior. If the negative behavior continues, then we can report it to the Wikimedia Foundation Trust and Safety Team, who will contact the offending individual to communicate with them about their behavior and how it is not in line with community guidelines. Depending on the severity of the offense and whether or not the individual apologizes and promises to improve, the offending individual may be banned from one or more Wikimedia spaces. As the Wikimedia Foundation must communicate with people from around the world, sometimes the communication they have with offenders has the potential not only to re-educate an individual, but to have the individual go back to their local or national Wikimedia communities to discuss and rethink how they build and maintain inclusive, collegial online spaces in their home countries.
Established in 2012, The Wikimedia Foundation Trust and Safety Team is housed in the Wikimedia Foundation’s Community Engagement Department, and “identifies, builds, and—as appropriate—staffs processes which keep our users safe…to proactively mitigate risk as well as manage the overall safety of our online and offline communities when incidents happen” (“Trust and Safety Team”, 2019). The Trust and Safety Team “aim[s] to provide compassionate, credible, and comprehensive…services to the Foundation and to the volunteer communities and affiliates it supports…” (“Trust and Safety Team”, 2019). In 2017 at Wikimania in Montreal, I met Christel Steigenberger of the Wikimedia Trust and Safety Team and discussed my concerns about safety of my LGBTIQ+ Wikimedia comrades after hearing about their experiences. She invited me to serve on the Trust and Safety Team Advisory Committee so that we could discuss some of these challenges in more detail and figure out some solutions. At this time, different Wikimedia communities are working on community guidelines and codes of conduct that spell out appropriate behavior in online spaces, as well as define harassment, stalking, vandalism, discrimination, etc.., and the action steps that will be taken if someone causes harm in a Wikimedia space. Since 2017 I helped develop Codes of Conduct and have educated people about the strategies and processes they need to follow if they are mistreated in an online Wikimedia space. While it is possible that the number of incident reports are increasing, it may be due to increased awareness of the avenues for support, rather than a true increase in harmful actions against others in Wikimedia spaces.
What do these changes portend for the future of Wikipedia, online community, and beyond?
I am nervous about the future, to be honest. Governments around the world, employers, and schools believe that they have the right to monitor what we do online. They justify the monitoring of peoples’ online behavior as protecting peoples’ safety. Keeping people ignorant is not keeping them safe. Some national governments block Wikipedia completely, which is disastrous for people in remote areas with no access to libraries or no access to LGBTIQ+ information. Other governments monitor peoples’ Wikipedia activity, and have had representatives threaten or arrest Wikipedians who have added content in their languages that may not be “the party line”. It is no secret that, since 2016, more countries are voting for right wing fascist leaders who want to keep people divided and afraid by keeping them ignorant and encouraging people to report on each other for small infractions. This reality will lead to more work for the Wikimedia Foundation’s Trust and Safety Team, and more serious conversations about how to maintain a free, open, inclusive global online resource where everyone can participate in an equitable capacity.
An imbalance still exists in national and linguistic representation in Wikimedia leadership. This impacts the future of global LGBTIQ+ Wikimedia efforts because people from less LGBTIQ+-friendly countries need to learn about LGBTIQ+ issues and how they can advise people in their countries on how they can provide safety for LGBTIQ+ and other marginalized populations who do Wikimedia work. These discussions often take place predominantly among people from English speaking and European countries, and the result is that plans and strategies are developed that people from these countries can easily achieve, while our comrades from other countries may not even know how to enter the conversation, or feel shut out of it. This is why people are working harder now to make sure that there is global representation on Wikimedia Foundation boards and other governing bodies of influence.
I would like to believe that active Wikimedians, LGBTIQ+ and otherwise, are global information activists. We share news updates with each other, we make people aware of notable people from around the world, and we discuss some controversial topics in order to model to the world how to express them in academic or journalistic writing. We make well-researched LGBTIQ+ information available to people in parts of the world where it might not exist in their language, or may be forbidden to exist period. In conjunction with EuroPride or other international events, LGBTIQ+ Wikipedians are beginning to come together for multi-day edit-a-thons to network and create new or improved LGBTIQ+ content in multiple languages. They may not be able to do this work safely from their home country or their personal or work computer. In 2019 the largest LGBTIQ+ edit-a-thon took place in Tunis, in conjunction with a multi-day queer film festival, both supported by an LGBTIQ+ supportive NGO. LGBTIQ+ people in Tunisia still have no legal protections, and we cannot take these efforts for granted or allow their volunteers to go unsupported or unprotected. As more people within the Wikimedia movement become connected and meet each other, the better advocacy and support that we can provide not only for our more vulnerable comrades in the movement, but for big picture issues such as open global information access and human rights protections. We are thinking globally while acting locally, and Wikipedia still has great potential to provide a successful, sustainable model of global cooperation—even if it is just in the area of global LGBTIQ+ activism.
For more information about the history of LGBTIQ+ Wikipedia engagement, please read the following:
Wexelbaum, Rachel, Katie Herzog, and Lane Rasberry. “Queering Wikipedia”. In R. Wexelbaum (Ed.) Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums, Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press, 2015, pp. 61-80. https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/lrs_facpubs/49
Wexelbaum, Rachel. “Coming Out of the Closet: Librarian Advocacy to Advance LGBTQ+ Wikipedia Engagement.” In B. Mehra (Ed.) LGBTQ+ Librarianship in the 21st Century, Advances in Librarianship Vol. 45, Bingley, England: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019, pp. 115-142.
Jacobs, Julia. “Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly.” The New York Times, April 8, 2019.
“Trust and Safety Team.” Wikimedia Foundation, 2019. https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Trust_and_Safety
Wexelbaum, Rachel. “Maintaining an LGBT Studies Collection in an Academic Library.” [PowerPoint presentation]. Presentation given at the Acquisitions Institute, Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, Oregon, May 2011. https://acquisitionsinstitute.org/2011-program/