Homophobia? At Amazon?


I keep thinking about that delicious homophobic snafu that stuck it to Amazon last month and demonstrated the growing power of Twitter, however deliberately flash-in-the-pan it was.

The incident roared to life a month ago and died so fast that it didn’t seem important, but for me, something oddly familiar about it kept pinging away at the old postmenopausal memory. Finally I remembered an event 10 years ago in which Amazon behaved in an even more bizarre and homophobic manner that still has relevance today.

The Latest Episode

Last month Amazon abruptly removed gay/lesbian-themed titles from its powerful sale ranking system. In a weekend, thousands of books were ineligible for certain title searches, best seller lists and other critical functions.

An author sent a query to Amazon’s customer-service department asking why the books were being removed. Ashley D of Amazon.com Member Services replied that “we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.”

Well, “adult” is hardly the category to dump an entire classification of books, since the term signifies “pornographic” (think: “adult’ bookstores). But it is the correct term to use if Amazon officially believes that everything homosexual is offensive and needs to be removed from, you know, normal people’s eyes.

(A thoughtful explanation of why a sales ranking on Amazon is so important, along with a list of explicitly sexual hetero books that were not censored and non-explicitly sexual gay books that were, can be found here.)

The First Irony

According to Lisa Derrick in the Huffington Post, after the purge, if you searched for books under the category of “homosexuality,” the first title to pop up was the anti-gay self-help book, “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.” This title (which teaches “gender esteem,” tee hee, what a concept) continued to have a sales ranking, while a long-established book for children about lesbians raising kids, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” was pulled from the ranking and search functions. This made Amazon look twice as bigoted (or dumb) as before.

(Go here for a lengthy list of LGBT books whose sales rankings were similarly removed.)

Enter Twitter

And just as suddenly an outpouring of outrage against perceived homophobia at Amazon flooded into Twitter so immediately and furiously (and delightfully) that Amazon felt pressed to make an official statement. Oh, it wasn’t just gay books that were affected, the company said – the problem “impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories.” Amazon blamed the whole thing on a “glitch in our systems” and an “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error.”

Now wait, the Tweeters asked: Would a “glitch” understand the difference between a book that says homosexuality is good (“Heather Has Two Mommies”) and a book that says homosexuality is awful (“A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality”)?

No, answereth the Tweeters, growing even more appalled in new discussions with such wonderfully Twitter hashtags (discussion subjects) as “#glitchmyass,” “#apologyfail” and “#amazonfail.”

The Boycott Virus

The gist of most responses was that Amazon got caught censoring gay books and betrayed customers by trying to lie its way out of the problem. More outrage erupted all over the Internet in which so many writers swore they would never use Amazon again that a “boycott virus” spread like, well, a disease.

Egad, not a boycott! responded Amazon as it scrambled to reposition all the books in question in a very short period of time. And that, the company thought, was the end of it.

Some discussions now say the Tweets overreacted because they’re all young, they want to rebel, they’ve confused gay marriage with gay anything and are looking for a parent figure to pull down.

Or, as one thoughtful response suggested: This sort of confusion happens in large corporations all the time: A department at Amazon decided to defang sexually explicit books so they wouldn’t offend the general readership, but “the directive mutated from ‘let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff’ to ‘we’d better be careful to put an “adult” tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.’ ”

That would mean it was a glitch in the system, but of the human kind, and nobody’s responsible because Amazon covered it up.

The Other Episode

For the last month, though, I’ve kept thinking about another occasion that occurred in 1999 when Amazon legally, officially (and delightfully) embarrassed itself by deciding to “out” the co-owners of the Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis.

You can read the deposition transcripts from one of my old columns here.

In this case the co-owners of Amazon Bookstore, an independent feminist bookseller founded in 1970 (i.e., decades before Amazon.com came along), asserted that their brick-and-mortar store had been losing money in the ’80s and ’90s because the online book retailer in Seattle had taken the Amazon name. Indeed, vendors, customers, reporters and online readers so often confused Amazon.com with Amazon Bookstore that the co-owners in Minneapolis spent as much time resolving mistakes as they did running their store.

Attempts to find a peaceful solution through talks with Amazon.com were rebuffed, so the co-owners sued, citing trademark infringement.

The Second Irony

You’d think depositions in a case like this would focus on what happens when a new company takes on an existing company’s name, yes? Questions might be: Who was damaged and who should be responsible when the established bookstore name gets confused with the new online name?

But no. Noting that Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis identified itself as a feminist bookstore, lawyers for Amazon.com began asking the co-owners questions like this:

Q: Have you had any interest in promoting lesbian ideals in the community?

Q: I’ll ask you this, are you gay?

Q: In the email it states, all the owners at this time of Amazon Bookstore Cooperative and historically have been lesbians … Is that an accurate statement, to your knowledge?

Q: Are any of the employees at the Bookstore gay… ?

Q: Are any of the women at the bookstore married to a woman?

You can imagine the farcical tone of this scene. The lawyer for Amazon Bookstore was objecting vociferously but getting nowhere. The shocked co-owners found themselves having to remind Amazon.com’s lawyer that “it’s not legal (for a woman) to be married to a woman.” (Remember this was 1999 when gay marriage wasn’t even a gleam in Gavin Newsom’s eye.) And the Amazon.com lawyer kept saying, well, if the women at Amazon Bookstore can’t marry, “do they have [women] partners?”

As to what sexual orientation had to do with trademark infringement, the Amazon.com lawyer said as far as he was concerned, being gay was as unimportant as the color of a person’s hair, but “obviously from the perspective of my client (italics mine), we think [sexual orientation is] important to the case, the defense’s case, and that is one of the grounds for relevance.”

And why would it be relevant? I admit I had a little fun in my column imagining these attorneys planning their strategy before the trial. At some point the lightbulb went off and somebody said, “Wait a minute – these women are dykes! If we base our defense on proving they’re a bunch of lezbos, we’ll walk away with the trial!”

But the irony was, the co-owners were too nice: Their lawyer half-humorously suggested that if Amazon.com could get away with harassing the Amazon Bookstore co-owners about whether they were lesbians, the co-owners should be allowed to ask Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos if he were gay.

That would have been terrifically good copy for the media, but also a cheap shot, so Amazon Bookstore never sank to the level of Amazon.com. The co-owners did try to explain that Amazon.com sold many more gay books than Amazon Bookstore did and that Amazon Bookstore sold many more general books than gay books, but neither point made much impression.

Eventually the co-owners settled for what I hoped was a thoroughly obscene amount of money (never disclosed), and bless ’em, that bookstore has continued on its feminist way (see 2007 interview here).

How Amazon Works

Why go through all this again? Well, first, to understand how Amazon.com worked 10 years ago. If the company thought it was playing hardball by disclosing the sexual identity of the staff of Amazon Bookstore, we need to know.

We should know that the gay-themed questions were being asked not just by some attorney fishing for bait he could use later but “from the perspective of my client,” which is to say the people who own and operate Amazon.com.

Is There a Pattern?

So our question today might be: Could those homophobic people still be calling the shots at Amazon after 10 years? Could they be setting policy? Are they capable of screwing up the sales rankings for gay and lesbian books and using the term “adult,” i.e. porno, as a reason?

I think these two very bizarre episodes suggest a pattern inside Amazon of people acting negatively toward anything gay or lesbian (don’t even ask about transsexual or bi).

And I wish that Bezos, who has made a career out of being jus’ folks in his “customer-centric” way, would have given an interview or answered the phone or come forward in some way to sort out the matter in person.