PGP and a PGP Walk Into a Bar…

I have a friend who works at the LGBTQ Center at NYU, and who also runs events to help journalists and activists use privacy tools. He and I have made the inevitable joke, occasionally: “Okay, now I’ve told you about PGP, now let me tell you about this other kind of PGP…”

It’s ridiculous, but it’s interesting: what do PGP and PGPs have in common?

First, a definition: one kind of PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy. It’s a program that lets you encrypt and decrypt emails using public keys and private keys– I won’t bore you with the computer details, but suffice it to say that, out of all the forms of encryption that currently exist, it’s fairly excellent. (Pretty good, one might even say.)

The other kind of PGP stands for Preferred Gender Pronouns, and it means the set of pronouns you want people to use to describe you. For example, actress Laverne Cox, who is a transgender woman, is described by the pronouns “she/her/hers.” If you were talking about Laverne Cox, you’d say, “She’s an actress, her name is Laverne, and I like her a lot.” However, if you were talking about my friend Greg, who’s not transgender and who uses he/him/his pronouns, you’d say “He’s a student, his name is Greg, and I occasionally use him as an example on the Internet.” (Sorry, Greg.)

But there are more pronouns than she/her and he/him– which the average person already uses. After all, when you’re speaking about someone whose gender you don’t know, you often use the pronouns they/them, singular. “My daughter is bringing a friend to dinner,” you might say, “and I need to figure out whether they’re vegetarian or not.” Some people, who don’t identify as men or women, ask their friends and family to use the pronouns they/them by choice. (“I don’t want to do that, because I care about grammar,” some people say, to which other people reply, “more than you care about this friendship.” It depends on your priorities.)

There are still more pronouns for these people who don’t fit neatly into the male/female binary– people who feel both male and female, people who don’t feel either male or female, people who feel like they’re some kind of third gender. Pronouns include “ze/hir/hirs”, “xe/xir/xirs”, “fae/faer/faers”– all brand new for the Information Age (except hir/hirs, which can actually be found in the Canterbury Tales, believe it or not.)

So, apart from an acronym, what do Pretty Good Privacy and Preferred Gender Pronouns have in common?

Well, for one thing, all the people I meet who know what they are seem to be pretty similar– teenagers or people in their 20s, usually fairly nerdy, usually fairly punk-looking, often queer. Most of them are a little odd– you’d look twice at them, if you saw them on the street. Most of them are fairly intelligent, or at least fairly educated. Most of them grew up on the Internet, or if they’re too old to have grown up on the Internet, they’ve loved computers for a very, very long time.

But more than that: most people I know who shake my hand and say “hello, my PGPs are she/her/hers,” or who say, “do you use PGP, do you want to exchange keys,” seem driven by something very similar: a desire for autonomy that wasn’t able to be articulated until very recently.

Autonomy, too, doesn’t seem on a surface level to have anything in common with cryptography or queer theory– but I think that they’re very, very closely related. Privacy and autonomy, after all, are inseparable: psychology overwhelmingly shows that human beings need “alone time”, places where they are free from the judgment of their peers or the authorities, to develop a strong personal identity and an ability to think for themselves. And one’s gender is one of the most important parts of that personal identity: if you can’t even choose whether people call you “he” or “she”, how are you supposed to feel in control of any part of yourself?

So PGPs and PGP represent a new kind of individualism– a desire to control yourself and your personal space. But they also, I believe, represent a new kind of community-based thinking.

To send someone an encrypted message is, on some level, to express your trust in them. You have a message that’s secret enough that it needs to be made as private as possible– and you’re trusting them with this secret message, trusting them not to broadcast it far and wide. Similarly, using someone else’s preferred gender pronouns means that, on some level, you have respect and empathy for them. You recognize that calling someone who identifies as a girl “he” and “his” will hurt them, and you don’t want to do that– and more than that, you respect this person’s identity, and if they believe that “she” and “hers” are the best words to describe them, you’ll trust their judgment.

So what do PGPs and PGP have in common? A similar user base, yes, and a similar life philosophy: that the individual is important, that having control over your own actions and identity is important, and that respecting other people’s individuality and autonomy is possibly the most important thing of all.

Which may not just be a quality of the communities that use PGPs and PGP– but a quality of the new society we’re building in this brave new digital world.

If you’d like to learn more about PGP, please email me at hannah.weverka@gmail.com– I’ve just spent two days making a presentation for a class about digital privacy and I am spilling over with fun facts about encryption. I’ve also spent about four years learning about PGPs and other queer issues, and am happy to talk about them, again, at hannah.weverka@gmail.com.

Happy Thursday!

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