Ending Cyber Apartheid

Lambda Legal appears to have vanquished the bad guys at World of Warcraft

They gathered in unity. The undead and the night elves. The gnomes and the trolls. Mounted on dragon-like “raptors” and on foot, they gathered, all together, 70 to 100 of them, last June at the “Crossroads,” a popular gathering place—and sometime battleground—deep in the immensely popular World of Warcraft online role playing game. The gathering surely was a unique event — cyberspace’s first gay pride march.

“Teams from both sides, all dressed in pink shirts, all united and marched together… to signify faggy unity,” said Volant—a level 60 undead mage—who is also Benjamin Hardin, a 37-year-old San Francisco Web editor. Hardin, and friend Frank Wu, also a San Francisco Bay Area resident, founded “Rough Trade”—an affinity group, in this case for gay people, which are called “guilds” on World of Warcraft.

WOW overall now claims 5.5 million subscribers — roughly three times the population of Manhattan.

Participants in WOW and other “massively multiplayer” games typically devote themselves to building up power, killing monsters, and sometimes playing a hyper-violent animated version of capture the flag. Nobody ever has to get out of their chairs. And nobody every really dies unless they stop paying their monthly subscription fees to Blizzard Entertainment, an arm of the giant entertainment conglomerate, Vivendi Corporation, that runs the game — and makes its rules.

But this virtual world of dragons with bright red glowing eyes and horned demons last month began to have real-world problems. And for perhaps the first time, players who get out of their chairs and may know nothing about the arcania of WOW battlefields—namely the attorneys of Lambda Legal—have apparently stepped to win an important skirmish.

Back on January 12, Blizzard told Sara Andrews (aka Shimire), who in real life is a transgendered night club employee from Nashville, that she could not advertise to meet other lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered players in the game’s general chat area—the one forum that reaches all subscribers. Blizzard, whose parent company, Vivendi Entertainment owns Universal Music and big stakes in NBC/Universal and the Geffen and Interscope record labels, told Andrews that she faced expulsion from the game if she used even used the acronym “LBGT.”

Why?

“To promote a positive game environment for everyone and help prevent… harassment from taking place,” Blizzard said in a statement.

In other words, said Brian Chase, a lawyer at Lambda Legal, the nation’s largest LGBT legal rights organization, which took up Andrews’ case, “The way to stop harassment is to insist that the harassment victims go back in the closet.”

Lambda sent a letter to Blizzard’s president this past Monday, saying that the online fantasy world is, in real-world speak, a public accommodation, just like a hotel or a restaurant, and is subject to the same rules. Lambda demanded a response within 30 days and intimated that a lawsuit could be its next step. What they’re doing, said Chase, “is trying to silence the harassment victims instead of going after the harassers.”

Never mind what the rules may be on Planet Azeroth, said Chase, “In California that kind of conduct is discriminatory and therefore illegal.”

Lambda has won multi-million dollar verdicts against school districts who tried the same thing. In those cases, education officials told the gay kids to go back in the closet — for their own protection — but did nothing themselves to protect their charges.

Chase acknowledged that the WOW situation is much less serious. In both of the school cases, the kids were harassed physically, verbally, and psychologically, but said that the basic facts of the discrimination are exactly the same.

And for some, being “in-game”—the word players use to describe entering the WOW universe, as one might say “in New York” or “in Washington”—is a major part of their lives. Hardin has been gaming online since about 1998, and said that WOW makes up about 60 percent of his social life. He said some people spend as much as 50 to 60 hours a week in-game, and that the acquaintances made there are as real as friends from around the corner, or from the corner bar.

“This is easy. I enjoy it and it’s focused and I can sit here in my underwear,” he said a few nights ago—as the voices of other players in other cities, like New York City and Memphis, boomed, as if they were next door, from the computer’s speakers. The players use voice-over-Internet software to chat with each other while in-game.

Hardin is a tall slender blond, with glasses, and a neatly trimmed beard, who looks as if he’d be as comfortable in an über-trendy club as in WOW’s fantasy world.

“The old model used to be that most players are 15-year-old boys,” Hardin said. But now, he and others say, most are adults. “This person spends 30 hours a week gaming— they’re probably going to be a geek. But there are some hotties,” he said. “I’ve had my fair share of sex from this game” And the voices from the computer chimed in. “Will and Joe hooked up,” said one.

The voices, many members of Hardin’s guild, www.roughtrade.ws, say that they have faced harassment.

“I’ve never been comfortable being out in a guild,” said one. “Either I played straight, or I played a woman.”

Another told of being threatened because he was open about being gay. “They would talk about girls and stuff like that… But they’d just jump like a ton of bricks on me if I said I’d been on a date with another guy…It got to the point where I could just not deal with it anymore.”

But Lambda looks to have prevailed in its battle on behalf of queer WOW warriors. Late Wednesday, after getting Lambda’s letter, Blizzard, through spokeswoman Lisa Jensen, said that the entire Sara Andrews matter was “a miscommunication by one of the employees” and that the game master who reprimanded her “misinterpreted the game rules.

In a complete about face, after several weeks of online controversy, Jensen admitted, “He took action on the wrong person. She also promised more sensitivity training for the nearly 1,000 “game masters” who manage the online universe to help stanch harassment.

But, she said, with 5.5 million subscribers, like any big city, WOW has its dangerous back alleys. “We can’t do everything,” she said. It’s a very big world.”

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