The Geography of Gay Hate

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Today I was enlightened to the real power of prejudice. Prejudice is not a form of hate, it is a presumption without consideration that may or may not be valid.

We recently completed a tour of the Deep South and on that trip I was particularly uncomfortable in Mississippi though for no outward or obvious reason. My perceived knowledge of right leaning ideologues, poverty, minority discrimination and low education levels all led me to not see Mississippi as the wonderful place it is and miss its color, culture and beauty.

My epiphany arrived with the Geography of Hate, part of a larger project by students at Humboldt State University (HSU) in California identifying the geographic origins of online hate speech. The project began as an analysis of racial slurs in tweets that referred to President Obama during the election. The data used to develop this map comes from geocoded tweets in the United States from June 2012 to April 2013 that contain a hate word such as queer, fag, dyke or homo.

Algorithmic applications can capture data based on key words yet leave out the context of the tweet. Students at HSU took the analysis a step farther and personally read 150,000 tweets to classify each as positive, neutral or negative. They looked at each and decided if the tweet used the key word as a negative; if not it is not included in the map. They aggregated those tweets at the county level to disguise actual tweeter addresses.

Using this data a map was generated to demonstrate the frequency of hateful tweets as a proportion of total tweets from that area. If there are more tweets containing a hate word the county appears red on the map; the county turns blue if tweets contain hate terms less often than the average and areas without shading have a low average use of negative terms compared to the national average.

I zoomed into the map to see the data on a county by county basis.

When viewed from afar it is apparent that the Eastern USA is not a gay friendly place. However, it’s important to note that the clear areas of the western US are vastly less populated places and I presume there are less tweeters there.

Forget about Texas and Oklahoma where the majority of tweets contain the key words and turn those areas red. Much of the Mid South and Mid West are red also. However while drilling down via zooming in the map became more and more transparent revealing that Mississippi is actually less homophobic than North Georgia where I had felt reasonably comfortable taking my husband, dog and RV. Clearly my prejudice was misplaced.

While enduring cold, rain and snow under a veil of gloom imposed by family tension I totally missed the fact that Northern Georgia is one of the most homophobic places we visited on a tour lasting most of a month. Off we went to Birmingham AL where I felt a certain comfort in a big city all the while a major center of hate was situated just south.

Visiting Memphis where the local community identifies as ‘rainbow friendly’ fearful of using the term gay, there is little if any hateful word use. Arkansas is also friendly on the Geography of Hate map.

The biggest surprise remains Mississippi, the state I was most uncomfortable in. The state in which I drove with particular caution both to not alert the local authorities I was passing by and to not be stranded. The two nights we spent in Mississippi were each innocuous and the hosts if anything were over friendly with a wonderful old Southern lady in the middle.

Again I am reminded, beware what you know to be true. Ric Reily


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