Sine Anahita. Journal of Political & Military Sociology. Volume 34, Issue 1, Summer 2006.
The internet, unlike other sites for social movement activism and community building, has no spatial boundaries. Traditionally, communities have been centered in local, group-level interactions with clear spatial boundaries for inclusion and exclusion (Wellman, Boase, and Chen 2002). However, online activist communities cannot rely on spatial boundaries to delineate the social boundaries of who belongs, and who does not. I propose that within online communities, virtual identities demarcate the social borders of groups. Virtual identities are people’s online performances of who they want others to think they are based on aspects of identity that include sexuality, gender, race, ideology, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. In an online world, where there are no spatial boundaries, a group is bounded by the virtual identities of the people who make up the group. For example, an online skinhead group, such as the one under study here, is bounded by the virtual identities of its participants, by their virtual performance of a skinhead-appropriate sexuality, gender, race, and other markers of skinhead identity. I especially focus on hypermasculinity and heteronormativity as two important attributes for skinheads to embody, and argue that group members deploy their virtual identities to mark the borders of the group, and police the virtual identities of others to ensure the maintenance of the group’s borders.
For an online social movement community, there are problems if virtual identities indeed mark the boundaries of online communities. First, virtual identities, like other postmodern identities, are continually being negotiated, and thus are in continual flux (Hevem 2004). How do virtual communities manage their borders if the virtual identities of the participants need to be regularly authenticated? Second, because virtual others are unseen and unheard, or are seen and heard only by easily manipulated digital photos or audio, online participants can never be sure that others’ virtual identities are trustworthy (Carter 2005). How do participants maintain a sense of trustworthiness of their online peers and the group boundaries they represent?
There are specific risks that a social movement community takes in an online context if participants who are doing the work of the movement do not themselves embody the specific idealized identities—the collective identity (Melucci 1988)—promoted by the movement. For example, the global skinhead movement is largely comprised of white, downwardly mobile, young men who perform a heteronormative, hyper-masculine gender identity. But what if participants in a skinhead blog, for example, do not embody these ideals of the skinhead movement? What boundaries would enclose the online community if participants were not “really” hyper-masculine, heteronormative, white, or male? What happens if a member of an online social movement community suspects another of having an inappropriate virtual identity—such as being “a fucking faggot,” as illustrated by the epigraph at the beginning of this article? Establishing “real” and stable identities to mark the boundaries of the social movement thus becomes of utmost importance in online social movement communities because it is the virtual identities that mark the boundaries. The social movement community must patrol its borders, and control its members so they will adhere to the collective identity promoted by the movement. Since virtual identities mark the social borders of an online community, it is the virtual identities that must be patrolled, and the online behaviors of members that must be controlled.
This paper examines a skinhead blog—Skinhead Forum—to document how an online social movement community establishes important aspects of an authentic skinhead identity, and how it patrols its borders and controls its members in order to maintain group boundaries. Blogs like Skinhead Forum are online journals constantly updated and reshaped by participants who interact by reacting to each others’ posts (Kahn and Kellner 2004). On blogs, ideas are in perpetual motion (Kahn and Kellner 2004; Mautner 2005) and virtual identities are continually being negotiated by participants (Hevem 2004). These aspects of blogs, of course, further make problematic the function of virtual identities in marking the borders of online social movement communities. An online community must engage in perpetual management work that fortifies participants’ virtual identities and maintains its borders.
Skinhead and White Power Ideologies and the Internet
The creation of cyberspace has reinvigorated white power movements, expanding audiences and widely disseminating ideologies (Back 2002; Costa 1998; Ferber 2004). There is no longer doubt that rightist and racist groups have effectively utilized the internet for political purposes (Kahn and Kellner 2004). However, as late as 1998 there were doubts about whether the internet would be effective in rallying rightist activists (Back, Keith, and Solomos 1998). This may be because in the internet early days, white power discourse was located on static websites or clumsy email lists. The state of technology at that time produced inert statements read by audiences unable to interactively co-construct ideas. The comparatively new form of digital communication known as blogging destabilizes these static discourses. Psychologists who examine blogs define them as web-based journals where an individual author makes posts as if to a public, on-line diary (Hevem 2004). However, other social scientists and the most recent mainstream media analyses expand the definition of blogs to define them as online journals where multiple authors (bloggers) post comments to each others’ posts. Blogs are thus highly interactive and collectively constructed (Kahn and Kellner 2004).
Skinhead ideologies on Skinhead Forum and similar blogs are based on Western European philosophy, which fetishizes binary thinking (Herndon 2003). Skinhead discourse effectively utilizes framing processes (Snow et al. 1986) to interpret movement participants’ experiences through a set of binary oppositions such as white v. black, male v. female, heterosexual v. homosexual, American v. immigrant, and Brit v. Pakistani. Tropes created around these types of binary oppositions have been successfully exploited by white power movement organizations as explanations for socio-economic structural changes for at least 150 years (Blee 1991; Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 1997, 2004; Ferber 1998), so what the virtual skinheads accomplish on Skinhead Forum follows a reliable social movement strategy. The conceptual framework of essentialism holds that there are irreducible differences between the binaries, differences that are biologically-based, oppositional, and ordained by various manifestations of god (Dobratz and Shankes-Meile 2004; Ferber 1998). As analysis of the skinhead blog will illustrate, virtual skinheads, like other white power activists, utilize essentialism in what Dobratz and Shanks-Meile say are “uneven ways” (2004: 114).
One commonality among white power ideologies, including skinhead ideologies, is the conviction that control of sexuality and reproduction must occur in order to curb miscegenation, which is thought inevitably to lead to the pollution and eventual extinction of the white race (Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 1997; Ferber 1995, 1998, 2004; Rogers and Litt 2004). Gender features prominently in white power movement discussions about how to obtain control over reproduction and sexuality. With the recent sociological interest in masculinities, many authors have written about how issues of masculinity structure movement activities, symbol systems, ideologies, and the composition of organizations. Most analysis of feminine identity and women’s participation in the white power movement has been framed from male participants’ points of view, but theorists have recently expanded their explorations of how activist women utilize gender identity (see, for example, the numerous works by Blee).
Collective Identities in White Power Movements
Melucci (1988) stimulated thinking about the nature of collective identities when he analyzed how members of a social movement come to share an understanding of their situation. Participants who create a collective identity come to feel a sense of common consciousness, and a shared concept of who they are (Dobratz 2001). A key element of a collective identity is the jointly created symbol system used to interpret what is happening to individuals whose collective consciousness may then unite them in a common struggle (Melucci 1988). The white power movement has effectively deployed concepts about racial identity, and pride in race, as a way to create a collective identity, and many in the movement have explored how religion may further the development of a collective identity (Dobratz 2001). Most important for this paper, however, is how the virtual skinheads, as part of the white power movement, deploy collective identities based on hypermasculinity and heteronormativity as a way to delineate borders of the movement.
A social movement community establishes and maintains a boundary around itself and the external world as a way to solidify a collective identity (Taylor and Whittier 1992). However, traditional notions of collective identity as a prerequisite for social movement participation, and indeed what constitutes membership in a social movement, are shifting due to the influences of the global internet (Ferber 2004). The internet has made traditional borders permeable, including borders based on nationality and nationhood (Back 2002), communities (Wellman, Boase, and Chen 2002), and borders that enclose sexuality, gender, and race. As a result, new questions about collective identity have arisen. A question explored in this paper is how a social movement exerts control over members’ collective identities, particularly identities based on gender and sexuality. If a social movement actor is literally unseen, and is instead known through bytes of text, how is collective identity established and managed? In particular, how do participants on a social movement blog ensure each others’ sexual and gender identity as appropriate for membership on the blog? The question is especially pertinent for an online community that relies on participants’ virtual identities to mark its borders.
White Power Masculinities
Ferber (1998) maintains that a central goal of the white power movement is to reaffirm the masculinity of white men threatened by structural transformations. Blazak (2004) explains how there are both macro-level and micro-level reasons why white men identify as activists in the white power movement. The central problem for white men is one of masculinity threatened by a modernized and extremely complex culture where traditional gender roles no longer function in the fashion white men in formerly hegemonic positions expect. The multiple processes of globalization and other structural shifts have reshaped masculine identities in profound ways (Kimmel 2003). As white men feel embattled, and see their personal and structural status dissolve, many turn to reactionary social movements to help them find new masculine identities (Fine, Weiss, Adelston, and Marusza 1997). Rightist movements such as the global skinhead movement effectively exploit beliefs about a crisis of white masculinity and the need to reaffirm traditional manhood by creating discourses that explain white men’s problematic situation in terms of not only race, but gender and sexuality (Blazak 2004; Connell 2002; Ferber 1998). For example, the rural militias that arose from the devastation of the 1980s farm crisis effectively use talk about threats to white masculine hegemony to align members’ interests with those of the militia movement (Kimmel and Ferber 2000; Kimmel 2003; Van Dyke and Soule 2002). Black men, immigrants, Jews, homosexuals, feminists, and wimpy white men are framed as scapegoats and are blamed for the structural problems plaguing white rural men (Connell 2002; Fine et al. 1997). Some rightist white organizations utilize the highly masculinist Western genre in films and books to construct a romanticized and threatened white masculine identity and to justify subordination of others according to their perceived race and gender (Ferber and Kimmel 2000). Young white men are especially targeted for recruitment to far right movements in the US and Europe, and the narrative strategies of threats to white masculinity by scapegoated others have proven especially effective among this population (Costa 1998; Fine et al. 1997; Kimmel 2003). Post-pubescent men are particularly fascinated with images of fascism, and their fascination, plus their focus on video games, war, death, and eroticism, have created a wave of white power youth in Europe, the US, and Brazil (Costa 1998). The rightist skinhead movement is part of the latest wave of the contemporary white power movement, and its activists are primarily men who identify strongly with images of hypermasculinity, violence, and heteronormativity (Blee 1996).
White Power Femininities
There are fewer studies of how femininities are utilized in the white power movement than there are of masculinities. Most popular opinion assumes that women do not participate in white power movements, or that if they do, they participate only peripherally and in relation to men as wives or girlfriends (Blee 1996). However, this assumption misinterprets how white power movements exploit ideas about women, femininity, and womanhood (Blee 1996; Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 2004). Women have long been an active presence in white power activism, and the deployment of gendered symbols about female identities has an equally long history (Blee 1991). As later analysis will show, virtual skinheads largely shut women out of frontline activist roles, and mostly relegate women to subservient, helpmeet status. Skinheads are deploying ideas about femininities, and appropriate gender and sexual identities as they do so.
White women experience significant cultural anxiety about the multiple contemporary shifts in gender relations, and white power organizations such as the virtual skinheads exploit this anxiety in ways that are similar to how they exploit men’s anxieties: creating tropes of heteronormativity and gender appropriateness. For example, white women’s concerns about public schools, stressors affecting family life, and the politics of reproduction are mobilized by white power movements through a logic of white motherhood (Rogers and Litt Dobratz and Shanks-Meile (2004) document that many white separatist activists believe a return to the traditional patriarchal family form will solve US culture’s multiple social problems. Virtual activists on Skinhead Forum also campaign for such a solution.
For this study, I examined the archives of Skinhead Forum (skinheadz.com), a skinhead blog. I chose to find data on the internet because of the ubiquitous, 24-hour nature of the internet (Mautner 2005), and the fact that the internet continues to be woefully understudied by sociologists and other social scientists (Hevem 2004). According to its homepage, Skinhead Forum has been operating since late 2002 and claims nearly 1200 regular users. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) report on radical right online forums reveals that in June 2005, there were 1154 registered members of Skinhead Forum. One of a dozen radical right forums analyzed by the SPLC, Skinhead Forum is rated as “relatively unimportant” compared to the much larger and older forums. Stormfront, which began in 1996 and claims over 52,000 members (SPLC 2005) is said by the SPLC to be the first major white power forum, and the one that set the standard for Skinhead Forum and other smaller blogs.
I chose Skinhead Forum to analyze for several reasons. First, larger online forums such as Stormfront have been included in academic analysis (see, for example, Baker 2004; Blazak 2004; Duffy 2003; Futrell and Simi 2004; Kim 2004), while smaller forums like Skinhead Forum have not. It is important to analyze multiple types of online forums more fully to understand the phenomenon of the white power movement’s expansion to the internet. Second, smaller blogs like Skinhead Forum provide an important outlet for movement activists who may be intimidated by the size of the readership on the larger blogs, do not regularly contribute posts to large blogs, and whose voices are thus more rarely heard in the white power movement. It is important that sociologists interrogate these voices, as well as analyze the discourse of the movement’s most visible and vocal leaders. Third, skinhead blogs are arguably on the fringe of cyberspace, and perhaps are even marginalized from more mainstream white power forums. For example, the blatant promotion and celebration of racist and heterosexist violence and the common, though carefully controlled, use of inflammatory rhetoric may be less tolerated on larger and more popular blogs due to their increased visibility and resulting scrutiny from authorities. In addition, many of the other racist blogs invite participation from women, even if women must operate within certain gendered constraints. The consensus on Skinhead Forum about women’s participation, however, seems to function to contain women’s participation in the movement. Thus this particular blog may be marginalized from other white power blogs. Fourth, the smaller total number of posts on Skinhead Forum offers a more easily manageable database than the larger forums. As Mautner (2005) notes, the internet produces huge databases that are unmanageable for most forms of qualitative research to be feasible. Choosing a relatively smaller database aids in manageability, even though it does raise the possibility of bias. Finally, registration as a member is not necessary to be able to read posts on Skinhead Forum, unlike some other white power blogs. I chose not to register as a participant to maintain my privacy, and to forestall the probability of being “flamed” by participants before my research was complete. Conveniently, Skinhead Forum includes a list of members identified by their avatar—cyberspeak for the member’s screen name, iconographic photo, representational symbol, and/or philosophical statement or personal motto. This was yet another reason why I choose this particular blog to analyze, as it provided valuable context and outlines of participants’ virtual identities.
The archives on Skinhead Forum are ordered according to specific topics, such as ideology, activism, training, and open discussion forum. There is an internal search engine which I used to search for mention of words related to sex, gender, and sexuality. I included skinhead slang terms, such as skinbyrd (skinhead female—a category that is disputed on this particular blog) and homos (homosexuals), in my search. I skimmed all of the archives through May 2005, at that time numbering more than 4500 posts, and more closely read the approximately 30 threads specifically pertaining to aspects of sex, gender, and sexuality. A thread is the line of discussion on a particular post subject, or topic. Threads often diverge into other areas of discussion, and if another pertinent thread developed, I followed that one as well. Some threads contained as few as two or three posts, while others contained as many as 30 or 40. On average, threads on the Skinhead Forum contain about seven or eight posts. Many of these are only one or two lines, such as those that express brief agreement with another post.
Most blogs are organized chronologically, as is Skinhead Forum. Searches of threads thus resulted in data that was chronological. Because data on the internet is so unstable that it can literally vanish before a research project is complete (Mautner 2005), I printed copies of every post I could locate that contained mention of the search terms related to gender, sexuality, and sex. This provided me with a sizable body of data in printed form which I then read in its entirety. I made loose notes while conducting this comprehensive reading. I subsequently followed this comprehensive reading with successive readings utilizing focused coding techniques. After studying the chronological set of threads that discussed one or more of the search terms, I recognized that questions about virtual identity, especially heteronormative and hyper-masculine identity, seemed especially important to participants. Instead of examining the skinhead blog with preconceived hypotheses, I allowed my ideas about virtual identities to emerge from the data (Glaser 1992). Developing theoretical frameworks by allowing theoretical frameworks to emerge, known as grounded theory, is especially appropriate for this particular study, as it is concerned with virtual identities of gender and sexuality that themselves are under constant processes of negotiation and control.
All of the topic areas are hosted by moderators—members accorded special privileges by the website administrator to monitor usage of the site, including the power to block users and censor posts. According to the website’s “About” page, the blog was launched September 2002. I corrected spelling and punctuation when I cited posts to increase their readability.
Blogging the Borders
The skinhead movement arose in the 1980s as part of the backlash against progressive social changes combined with the devastating failure of “trickle-down” economics and other socio-economic changes (Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 1997). Largely populated by downwardly mobile, white, heterosexual young men, the skinhead movement became globally known for its activists’ violent behavior, and for their identification with an iconographic style: shaved heads, heavy work boots, and other markers of hypermasculinity. The development of the internet has facilitated the global expansion of the movement. Costa claims that the skinhead movement operates via the internet on a mass libidinal level (1998). Young, post-pubescent men—the primary members of the skinhead movement—are mesmerized by fascism and sex, and skinhead ideologies and images effectively tap into their fascination (Costa 1998).
The skinhead movement deploys some of the most “extreme gender practices” among the various branches of the white power movement (Blee 2002:148). Masculinist and heterosexist violence is widely reified as the epitome of successful social movement activism against racial and sexual enemies (Blazak 2004; Blee 2004). Women are relegated to subservient helpmeet roles, and generally forbidden from participation in the movement’s frontline activities (Blee 2002). However, the ideologies of misogyny are not universally accepted. Blee (2002, 2004) documents women skinheads who reject and challenge male skinheads’ sexism.
Blee (2002, 2004) claims that a central objective of the racist skinhead movement is to reify a collective identity of hyper-masculine heteronormativity. Ferber (1998) makes similar claims about the white power movement. I propose that the discourse of proof of a genuine skinhead hyper-masculine heteronormativity is especially vital because the boundaries of the online community lie at the edges of its members’ virtual identities. Because boundary maintenance is so important to social movement communities, for an online community such as the skinheads’, control of participants’ virtual identities is essential. Boundary maintenance is accomplished through blogging, which includes discussion of elements of an appropriate skinhead identity, exclusion of virtual identities found inappropriate, and reaffirmation of approved virtual identities. The boundaries of the group are thus located at the line between those virtual identities excluded from the group and those that are reaffirmed as belonging.
Borders of Appearance
A core component of a gendered and sexualized virtual skinhead identity is physical appearance. Among the different aspects of physical appearance, hair plays a prominent role, as the length and appearance of hair is inherently gendered. “Can I be a skinhead with hair?” asked a naive male newcomer in 2004. The following discussion illustrates the process of establishing an appropriate skinhead physical appearance, which, because it is virtual, functions as a marker of the border for the virtual community.
Four months after the original question, a member continued what had already been a long discussion: “If you are a real skinhead then you will have to lose hair because as [another poster] said it’s hard to fight with long hair and you look like a fucking hippie … If you want to be a true skinhead shave your head otherwise don’t call yourself a skinhead, because skinhead is the one with shaved head, fighting enemies.” Virtual skinheads, like their counterparts in the physical world, associate hippies and men with long hair with effeminacy. This fact, plus the poster’s comment about fighting enemies, illustrates that hypermasculine acts such as street brawling is part of the virtual skinhead collective identity. In addition, this comment links the skinhead blog under study with the larger, global skinhead movement, which views a racial holy war that includes urban street fighting as both necessary and imminent. Another important point that arises from this particular quote is how participants on the blog exert social control on each other’s online behavior, in the process maintaining the borders of the group based on how long a “true”, though virtual, skinhead allows his hair to be.
Within one day of the above post, a member refined the idea of hair length as a core aspect of skinhead collective identity: “Some Skinheads have hair. Some go between a number 1 crop and an inch. But hair longer than that is not Skinhead.”
Later the conversation shifted and a link of age and hair length was suggested. The vast majority of skinhead activists are young men (Blazak 2004; Blee 2002). Based on the avatars of blog participants, most virtual skinheads are also young, linking Skinhead Forum participants with the wider skinhead movement. One member shifted the conversation so as to discuss inclusion of older members: “After you turn 27 you can choose to have hair if you want. Our Pres says sometimes it’s best now to ‘blend in’ with the masses.”
Another member attempted to shift the discussion away from hair length by noting that skinhead identity went further than actual physical appearance, to embody internal attributes: “It’s what is in your heart that matters … being a skin isn’t a uniform or a special hair cut (while those are still important). It’s a lifestyle … It has to be in your heart or it will never last for you.” This post indicates that although hair length and other aspects of skinhead physical appearance mark the borders of the community, internal attributes—what is in a person’s “heart”—are more reliable boundary markers. This, of course, raises questions about how a boundary is to be marked if lines are drawn based on something even more ethereal than virtual identity.
The conversation about hair demonstrates that aspects of an authentic, genuine skinhead identity need to be established because of the importance a “true” and “real” identity is to the maintenance of the movement community’s borders and the reproduction of its virtual activists. Members seem to have agreed that skinheads should wear their hair extremely short, either shaved or no longer than one inch, at least until they reach a certain age or are in a situation where they need to be less obvious about their skinhead identity. But what truly matters is how authentic the skinhead feels in his heart. However, questions about how short skinheads must wear their hair applied only to men, as the blog organizer explained to a woman seeking an answer to her own hair length question early in 2005: “Only males are Skinheads. No, you would not cut your hair to be a supporter.” Two years earlier he had told a woman asking a similar question: “You might want to consider the Biblical admonition, ‘It is a shame for a man to have long hair, but it is a glory to a woman.’” His responses reaffirm the notion that an authentic skinhead identity is an exclusive property of men.
This post also illustrates how important physical appearance— symbolized in this particular discussion as length of hair—is to negotiating not only authentic skinhead identities, but also to establishing appropriate borders for the community. “Only males are Skinheads,” he reminds the participants. Women and non-appropriate Others are to be kept beyond the boundaries of the virtual skinhead community. However, the mere fact that a woman—an Outsider—was attempting to negotiate an authentic skinhead identity for herself indicates that the borders of the blog are being challenged, even while they are being fortified through processes of discussion and social control.
Borders of Gender
In spite of the blog organizer’s above rebuke, whether women can be authentic skinheads crops up in multiple places on the blog. In 2003, a poster claiming to be “really pretty,” asked: “Do you take girls?” Several members interpreted her post as a prank, although others took the opportunity to discuss the terms by which women can participate. Overall, the majority of posts on the topic in 2003 indicate that women cannot be real skinheads. Women who sought to be skinheads had their feminine identity interrogated as a tactic of social control. For example, one man stated that, “there are just some things that women are better at. Some things men are. Real women will not dispute that fact” [emphasis in original]. This remark has the effect of fortifying the border by using identity as a marker that separates “real women” from “real skinheads”.
However, as of May 2005, women’s participation in the virtual skinhead movement was still being discussed. In spite of the warnings against women’s participation, there are a handful of participants who claim to be women, and whose avatars contain photos that appear to portray women. At least one has a shaved head. These examples, of course, underscore Carter’s (2005) contention that blog participants can never be absolutely certain about the “real” identity of their virtual peers. Women continue to inquire about being skinheads and participating in skinhead activities. In posts where women’s participation is discussed, women ask the questions, while men make proscriptions. I found only one example where a man attempted negotiating an increased role for women in the movement. Instead, the following type of conversation, initiated by a woman, most commonly occurs: “I’ve been a Nationalist for a year now … My question is this: what exactly should a woman’s role in the movement be? I’m loyal and supportive to my boyfriend, but 1 feel that I should do more … Should I take a more submissive role and follow his lead?” Her question was answered by a series of proscriptive posts by men reifying women’s heteronormative roles and clearly delineating the borders of the group:
My wife is almost totally supportive of me in things I do. She’s a great mother and awesome wife. Try being like that. Offer to help him passing out literature … Yes, you’ll have to submit to your man … A woman is not made to lug artillery shells around or patrol with 80 lbs of weapons, gear, ammo, food and water.
This post seems to be raising the possibility of expanded participation for women in the movement, although clearly continuing to relegate them to help meet roles. Although part of the post states that women are by nature unable to participate in some skinhead activities—such as the hyper-masculine chores of hauling weapons or patrolling territory, another part suggests women may play roles beyond being supportive to men. The poster above suggests that beyond being a good wife and mother—in other words, embodying heteronormativity—women have a limited role of handing out literature. Another post suggests women can write letters to the editor and to politicians, as they are naturally better at using language and writing skills than men.
During the blog’s early days, in 2002, the blog organizer wrote a rather comprehensive set of movement tasks that were appropriate for women supportive of skinheads. His remarks were in response to a woman who said, “Ok, if women are supposed to stay by their men, then what do they do if they have no husband or boyfriend? Do they just sit back, or what?” The blog organizer answered by listing things women without a man might do to participate, and even pointed out some feminine role models for female skinhead supporters to emulate:
[T]hey become part of an organization or cause, larger than themselves, and contribute their time and talents to advance their blood and people. This could involve working on hosting events, supplying logistical support, writing, making things (flags, uniforms, patches) and just being at the right place at the right time to add moral support … But no, it does not include being some sort of Cassius-Clay’s-daughter punch-‘em-out type or some Gloria-Steinem bra-burning ilk. You might find the right man, eventually and hopefully, or, perhaps not. But your loyalty can be shown nonetheless. Betsy Ross, Florence Nightingale, Phyllis Schlafly, and even Nancy Reagan might offer a bit of example.
The blog organizer makes it clear that women can be activist supporters of the skinhead movement, but the boundaries of heteronormative femininity must be maintained. Feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem are rejected as role models for female skinhead supporters, while historical nationalist heroines are included along with contemporary women prominent in the New Right as appropriate models for emulation.
The presence of female avatars and posts from women hint that even though previously-established and “natural” boundaries of sex prevent women from full participation in the virtual skinhead movement, the borders may be permeable to some extent. For example, although posts from virtual skinheads claiming a male identity do proscribe restricted roles for women, the fact that women are not totally excluded from the blog may seem that the borders of this virtual world are at least somewhat permeable. In fact, a handful of posts seem to indicate that some blog participants see beneficial aspects of women who support skinheads. For example, one poster said, “Most people think of White Nationalists as ‘angry white males.’ When they see women standing up for their race as well they may become more accepting of the movement and more likely to join in the future.” However, although boundaries of gender may seem permeable in the virtual world, nearly all of the male participants continue to socially control women participants so as to keep them outside of the borders of the online group. They accomplish this exclusion because women cannot claim a true skinhead identity, and through reminding women participants of heteronormative appropriateness and suggestions for activism that present only a slightly expanded role for women.
It is not only the men who patrol the virtual identity of participants, and thus the borders of the online skinhead community. Many female blog participants also patrol the borders of gender, reminding women seeking an expanded role in the virtual skinhead community of their appropriate place within heteronormativity: “A woman cannot be a skinhead … Your place is behind your proud white man. You are to support him, raise your children, and care for the home. Let your strong proud white man worry about the politics behind it,” admonishes a woman blog participant in May, 2005. Ultimately, then, the gendered border that marks the virtual skinheads’ online community is not under serious challenge from women participants. As one virtual skinhead said in 2005: “[L]eave the politics to the guys.” However, as discussed below, although the border is not under serious challenge from women participants, it may be less rigorously patrolled than the border marking participants’ sexual identity, discussed next.
Borders of Sexuality
Virulent statements against homosexuals are common on Skinhead Forum, reflecting the ideologies of the global movement. These statements mark the borders of who must be excluded from this particular social movement community, although the issue of sexuality is contested. For the bloggers under study, authentic skinhead identities are anchored by heteronormativity and hypermasculinity: “The main idea of being a Skinhead is … not being a pussy.”
The following discussion exemplifies the centrality of skinhead heteronormativity and hypermasculinity on the blog. In mid-summer 2004, a member said: “Since they just legalized fag marriage down here in MA, I did a little research. Faggots get more benefits than a wife and husband with 3 children … I am just wondering if there might be a good way to fight against the legalization of homo marriage.” Another man links American nationalism, and its attendant ideologies of national borders, with ideas of heteronormativity: “I cannot believe that the powers that be in my great country of America have tried to make this perversion accepted. Homosexuality is death. How can something as important as reproduction be tossed aside for an unnatural act such as homosexual coupling?” The post refers explicitly to reproduction as important, which strongly links the skinhead blog to white power ideologies emphasizing the importance of controlling reproduction (Ferber 1995, 1998, 2004; Rogers and Litt 2004). Here, the control of reproduction is extended to the control of homosexuality.
Shortly afterwards, the first blogger continued to refine skinhead opposition to homosexuality, offering an explanation for the etiology of homosexuality:
Being homosexual at birth is bullshit. It is just an excuse. Most people learn from their parents, friends or teachers … The reason why our nation is making more homosexuals is because [of] the people around them … Now that adopting kids for faggots is going on, we have kids learning from their dyke parents on how to go about living … It is not a chemical imbalance, it is all about what you are surrounded with. … I think the whole science shit for faggots is completely full of shit and they should stop. They should stop homo marriage, and make couples never to be able to adopt a child. We can’t make a million faggots change their mind, but we can control the marriage issue and adoption issue.
Although skinheads generally deploy an essentialist understanding of issues related to gender, the bloggers quoted resist a biological, essentialist understanding of sexuality. As the blogger above illustrates, essentialist ideas are deployed strategically in the white power movement (Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 2004) when activists deem it politically expedient to do so.
The etiology of homosexuality is a common topic for discussion on the blog and remains controversial among members, although there is consensus that opposition to homosexuality is an important element of an authentic skinhead identity. In 2003, an interesting discussion ensued during which a member confessed previous sexual confusion: “some years ago even I used to be a little sexually confused (11-14 yo) while going through the difficulties of puberty but today I can say I am 100% heterosexual (19 yo).” Note how the blogger admitted his previous “sexual confusion,” but then reaffirmed his present heterosexuality. This strategy minimized the destabilizing possibilities of his confession, preserved his skinhead sexual identity as heteronormative, and marked the borders of the virtual skinhead community. Later posts from other members reinforced the man’s authenticity as a skinhead with an appropriate sexuality. For example, one assured the blogger that he had just gone through an adolescent phase.
For the virtual skinheads under study, opposition to homosexuality and an expansion of gay and lesbian rights is a non-negotiable issue that clearly delineates the group’s boundaries: “Every Skin needs to be concerned about stopping what the fags are doing,” stated a member. Authentic skinhead identities require members to display their virtual heteronormativity, and to take a hyper-masculine stance against homosexuals. Another blogger illustrates how virtual identities mark the borders of the movement with an extremely blunt, declarative statement: “A person can be EITHER a HOMO or a SKIN, but not both.” In other words, an authentic virtual skinhead sexuality is a heteronormative one, and heteronormativity marks the borders of the movement. Further, those who are non-compliant will experience the ultimate form of social control, as a poster notes his willingness to engage in violent acts to defend the border: “What if my son sees some fags kissing or holding hands and begins experimenting with what he saw because he didn’t know better! That’s the day I go on a mad rampage of fag stomping!”
The borders of this particular blog are marked by heteronormativity and hyper-masculinity and interlopers who are suspected of non-heteronormativity are excluded. However, Blee (2002) notes that there are several gay skinhead groups and publications, even while she cautions against overstating their number or significance. Some sites feature pornographic images of hypermasculine men engaged in sodomy. The presence of gay skinhead internet sites has raised the ire of the virtual skinheads under study. So while the border marking appropriate skinhead sexuality seems clearly delineated, the continued presence of gay-oriented skinhead sites indicates the necessity of constant maintenance of the virtual border.
Policing the Borders
Because virtual identities define the boundaries of an online community, even as they are constantly being negotiated, and because virtual others are continually under suspicion for being inauthentic, policing the borders of the blog is a continual process. On Skinhead Forum, members continually challenge each others’ skinhead authenticity, usually in respectful tones as required by the blog’s moderators. The constant testing of participants’ sexuality and gender works to clarify the criteria by which an individual is defined as acting within the correct parameters, and to refine and delineate the boundaries of the community. As Bird (1996) notes, the borders of masculinity in a nonvirtual world are policed by peers to maintain the hegemony of the gender system. Kimmel (2001) also describes how the system of hegemonic masculine-ity requires continual testing and offering of proof.
Blog members usually avoid flaming each other when patrolling the borders. Flaming refers to the practice of posting hostile, insulting messages on blogs or other computer-mediated communication (Lee 2005). For example, after a two-day discussion about the etiology of homosexuality in 2003, one member suggested that God would not allow homosexuals to be bom. He was arguing that homosexuality is a conscious choice, and not the result of a mental illness. Within hours, a man responded by posting a quote from Leviticus warning that homosexual behavior is punishable by death. But most interestingly, he states:
I am not suggesting anyone that has posted in this thread to be anything more or less than pure” [italics in original] … We as Nationalist Skinheads believe in and practice sound morals, none other than those that were [taught] to us by our forefathers … The notion that if God would prevent all wrong doing and all illness and all sickness is un-thought out, unstudied … Just try to adjust that thought pattern. There is a right and a wrong, and good and a bad. It’s instilled in everyone … Study to show thyself approved.
This participant is reminding posters about several important elements of skinhead ideology, and by doing so, is marking the boundaries of skinhead identity. But note the deliberate, cautious way he frames his policing of the borders. He is extremely careful not to come across as accusing posters of being impure according to skinhead standards, but he is pointing out the boundaries nonetheless. His post defines the boundaries of genuine, pure skinhead sexuality, and clarifies the criteria by which skinheads may be judged and socially controlled by their peers.
A different approach occurred when a poster accused the blog site of being “way too homoerotic.” He was referring to several webpages with photos of members. The men are uniformly young, muscle-bound, clad in tight-fitting military garb. Many carry enormous weapons. Their heads and faces are cleanshaven. These displays of hyper-masculinity are popular among gay men who eroticize the Nazi image and style (Blee 2002). His implication of homosexuality and thus inauthenticity among blog participants incurred a vituperative reaction: “Where is a moderator when you need him most? We just don’t need this ‘homo’ crap here … Yeah, there’s some macho-looking Skins on here. Would he want some wimpy-looking rejects?… I notice that [the poster] does not even capitalize “Skinhead.” Dude, get a clue, show some respect and shape up.” Within a couple of days, a member had fingered the trouble-maker on another skinhead site, and reported back to the blog that he was “just some Skinhead-wanna-be.” Now the trouble-maker was accused of being inauthentic. Once judged, he was rejected, and blocked from further postings. The borders of the blog’s sexuality and masculinity had been policed, and the trespasser expelled in a classic example of social control through exclusion.
Another example of how the virtual identities of members are scrutinized, and thus the borders of the online community policed, occurs in the blog’s various discussions about tattoos. In the global skinhead movement, tattoos are often seen as not only masculine and appropriate, but even as a hallmark of skinhead identity. However, on Skinhead Forum tattoos on actual bodies are taboo because they disfigure the white masculine skinhead body. An example of the blog’s stance about tattoos illustrates that virtual skinheads link ideologies about race and skin color with their virtual skinhead identity: “Respecting your skin makes more of a statement than any tattoo you can get. It’s your clearest identifying mark, your first line of defense.” Earlier, in 2004, a member asked about the group’s taboo against tattoos: “I have been a Skinhead for two years and I would like to know the reasoning behind your disapproval of tattoos? Thanks in advance, comrades. P.S. I’m in Israel.”
Richard Barrett, said by the SPLC (2005) to be the formal leader of the blog, and the only member whose avatar lists him as “top-rank” answered the newcomer’s inquiry: “First of all, you must have the proper (Caucasian) blood to be a Skinhead. And, being in Israel (unless you are a tourist?) wouldn’t qualify you.” The man was measured against the criteria of authentic skinhead identity and was found not to be in compliance by virtue of his physical location, his presumed nationality, ethnicity, and/or religion, and thus the nature of his “blood.” Many elements of the white power movement view Jews and the state of Israel as homosexualized, and as determined to eradicate white men (Ferber 2004). In this case, the virtual border was both nationalist and ideological in origin.
Eight months afterwards, another member clarified the criteria by which an authentic skinhead identity is measured: “We can’t have tattoos because we must be pure of blood [and] skin.” Then, a member said, “I know some skins with tattoos and they are all right, but I do see your point.” This last poster clearly marked the border between authentic and fake skinhead identities when he continued: “They might be poser skins. We must be pure of all … There are a lot of poser skins out there.” Again, note the measured tone of the member’s post even as he marks the border between real and fake, pure and poser.
As Kimmel (2001) and Bird (1996) note about masculinity in general, the policing of the borders of gender and sexuality is a continual, never-ending process. However, boundary maintenance on the blog is complex, and the borders do not seem to be evenly patrolled. The border of gender identity seems much more permeable, even malleable, than the borders enclosing sexual or racial identity. Thus the border of gender is not as rigorously policed. As discussed previously, women’s roles in the virtual skinhead community are continually being discussed and there seems to be at least some expanded opportunities for women activists. Usually, women who seek an expanded role are admonished to remember their place within the system of heteronormativity or, at worst, are trivialized and marginalized by mocking. I found no example of any poster, male or female, being excluded or blocked from posting after advocating for an expanded role for women on the blog or in the skinhead movement. However, the boundary marking the virtual identities based on sexuality is much more rigid. There is no place on this particular blog for participants claiming a gay or lesbian identity, and those who do not exhibit the proper degree of virtual skinhead heteronormativity are not only mocked and trivialized, but are expelled and blocked from participation.
An example of the difference between the ways the borders of gender and sexuality are patrolled can be found in the application of the blog’s rule against “flaming.” As mentioned earlier, the blog’s guidelines clearly outline rules against flaming, and most members adhere to the rule most of the time. Yet the rule seems not to be applied to bloggers who flame participants suspected of being homosexual or harboring sympathies for gays and lesbians. Members who post anything that can be considered by other participants as being even somewhat sympathetic to homosexuals can expect a quite vituperative response, including name-calling, being investigated through online searches, and calls for the moderator to expel the offender. However, members who make posts sympathetic to women or who question the border of gender do not have to worry about being expelled, much less being called names or investigated. Even women who make claims about holding a skinhead identity are not expelled or shunned. Instead, the most serious border maintenance activity gender inappropriateness invokes seems to be admonishments about skinhead ideologies about heteronormativity and gender appropriate behavior.
There are at least two reasons why the borders of gender and the borders of sexuality are patrolled with different degrees of severity. First, the male virtual skinheads under study realize they need women to act as their complements and helpmeets in their lives as skinheads. Many posts on the blog talk about the women in their lives being important to raise their children, keep their houses, write letters, arrange logistics, and bail men out of jail when they are arrested after fighting in a skinhead battle. Even if most blog participants visualize men as in charge of their homes and the movement, they still have delineated a place for women in the virtual skinhead community because male skinheads cannot survive without women. Thus they may be less willing to risk losing women through total exclusion from the blog and from the movement, may be amenable to expanding the options for female participants, and are willing to patrol the border of gender less rigidly. In contrast, male skinheads can afford to exclude homosexuals without having to worry about fall-out on the domestic front. For the virtual skinheads under study, people whose virtual identities are homosexual or sympathetic to homosexuals are declared enemies, and the border marking the line between skinheads and their enemies is thus rigorously patrolled.
Establishing a collective identity based on hypermasculinity and heteronormativity is one of the most important objectives of the virtual skinheads. This links the skinhead blog under study with the larger, global skinhead movement, which has similar objectives (Blee 2002). I have argued that because of the absence of spatial boundaries in an online world, virtual identities mark the boundaries of an online social movement community. I document how members engage in boundary maintenance activities—what I call blogging the borders—that include discussing what elements constitute a true virtual skinhead identity, excluding those judged to be non-authentic skinheads, and reaffirming those identities found by participants to be appropriate. This process defines the social boundaries of the group as located precisely in the space between those virtual skinhead identities that are found to be acceptable by members, and those that are not and whose virtual persons are thus excluded.
The virtual world created within Skinhead Forum is just that—virtual. It is not a “real” world, but is, instead, a vision participants collectively create that prefigures the post- racial holy war world they wish to bring about through their activism (Futrell and Simi 2004). As such, the online community is an idealized version of reality, and blog participants’ actions in the real, non-virtual world may be quite different. Blee explores the tension between activists’ real lives and movement ideologies in her work on women in organized racist groups, noting that there has been significant and ongoing tension especially surrounding women’s rights issues in various segments of the white power movement (Blee 2004). This paper has presented examples of how conflicts over expanding women’s roles has been handled by the virtual skinheads who police the borders of gender in a less rigid way than other borders are policed. Whether a similar less rigid policing of the border marking sexuality will allow gay skinheads or their sympathizers to contribute to the virtual skinhead movement seems in doubt, at least for the foreseeable future.
In fact, an examination of the virtual gay skinhead community might be a productive avenue for future research. Another interesting avenue might be to examine other aspects of virtual masculinity. For example, the act of typing, as opposed to gaming and surfing, might be seen as feminine or feminizing. Accomplishing virtual masculinity, especially hypermasculinity as discussed in this paper, might require particular strategies to overcome potentially feminizing elements of the online environment. It may be that the virtual skinheads liberally use gendered words like fag, homo, and pussy, and raced words like Negro and Paki for their inflammatory value as a strategy to affirm their virtual masculinity.
This study extends the conversation about the process of forming sexual and gender collective identities by studying one of the latest manifestations of social movement participation. The non-corporeal, virtual nature of blogs, and the unseen, unverified gender and sexuality of participants, makes finding reliable markers of identity problematic for co-participants in social movements. Just around the comer are new, emerging digital technologies that may present even more interesting challenges for participants in virtual social movement communities. These emerging virtual communities, and the process by which participants authenticate each others’ collective identities, will provide fertile ground for future research.