How gay-friendly is Facebook?

Facebook thumbs down July 22nd, 2011

Facebook is an integral part of millions of lives, writes Ruth Pearce. It enables us to easily keep up with friends and acquaintances, organise events and even pretend that we’ve remembered important birthdays.

However, with privacy concerns on the rise and Google+ snapping at the giant’s heels, it’s a good time to reflect upon Facebook’s record as a gay-friendly space.

Queer visibility

First, the good stuff. Facebook has done a great deal to normalise queer sexualities and make gay relationships more visible. That little “basic information” box in your personal profile alone is capable of calmly informing the world that you’re gay or bisexual. The simplicity of this personal information belies its social profundity. We’ve long been told that our (non-straight) sexuality is a private matter, but Facebook enables us to share this fact with quiet pride.

Meanwhile, straightness itself is made visible through the very same means. Heterosexuality can no longer necessarily be assumed, as straight users are expected to declare which team they’re on in exactly the same way as gay and bisexual people. Similarly, Facebook enables us to declare that we’re in a relationship, a marriage or a civil partnership with another person regardless of their gender.

However, this apparent sexual freedom is potentially restrictive. In promoting the idea that details of our private lives should be public, Facebook forces many to either hide or lie about their sexual orientation. What happens when blissfully ignorant family members or colleagues stumble across details of your lesbian lover? And just what exactly are you meant to put on your profile if you’re still in the closet?

One approach is simply not to state who you’re “attracted to”, but this can raise questions from nosy types who may wonder whether you’re making a statement or trying to hide something. The other approach is to pretend that you’re straight, thereby lying to yourself as much as anyone else.

You know you Like it

This visibility business can therefore be a bit of a bother. However, for the next part of this piece let’s assume that you’re either out and proud, or capable of cunningly juggling your privacy settings whilst ensuring that you don’t ever leave yourself accidentally logged in.

Having created a profile and acquired a suitable number of so-called friends, Facebook now offers you the opportunity to “like” your favourite artist/TV show/web-based lesbian magazine, join groups of similarly-minded individuals, and plan events. Any one of these activities may have something of a gay bent (pun intended), enabling you to share your passion for Tegan and Sara with a horde of like-minded lesbionic types.

Obviously there are official pages for every kind of product under the sun these days, but Facebook is great if you want to celebrate popular culture in a more personal manner. The site has offered innumerable people the opportunity to publicly moan about the lousy ending to the L-Word, plan Lip Service viewing parties, and speculate about sanity of those excitable Candy Bar Girls. Or you could create a group in which you and your friends complain about the supposed homogeneity of lesbian experience. Whatever rocks your boat.

Hatred and censorship

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to stop the bigots from having just as much fun. There are countless “gay hate” pages on Facebook, from groups such as “We hate fat ginger lesbian’s” (watch your grammar, losers) to fake profiles that spew homophobic bile.

The impressive Wipeout Homophobia on Facebook campaign has tirelessly lobbied for the removal of over 2,200 hate pages, demonstrating that the social networking giant is at least prepared to respond to pressure on the issue.

However, Facebook has also been known to remove LGBT content. The site’s censors have taken down an advert depicting a lesbian kiss and several pictures of gay male kisses in the last year alone. Ironically, one of these pictures was posted on an event page calling for a “kiss-in” protest after a gay couple were asked to leave a London pub.

Facebook has similarly removed a number of campaigning groups. Kissing was again on the agenda when a “Queer Kissing Flashmob” page was shut down in October 2010. The flashmob had been planned to mark the Pope’s visit to Barcelona, prompting speculation that the page had been deemed offensive to Catholics.

These cases clearly demonstrate that Facebook isn’t completely on our side. The site’s admins are quite prepared to remove homophobic and transphobic pages (although this may take a few days or even weeks), but LGBT content can also be the target of censorship.

Whose ally?

Facebook has responded to pressure from campaigners by reinstating a number of the aforementioned photos and offering some embarrassed apologies. However, no apologies have been forthcoming for the deletion of over 50 pages from the social network on the day of the Royal Wedding.

No LGBT groups were taken down, but Facebook admins invariably deactivated content belonging to civil rights organisations and anti-cuts groups. Targets included disabled advocacy group the Black Triangle Campaign, a number of UK Uncut pages and the shockingly sinister Rochdale Law Centre. A number of commentators highlighted the suspicious timing, suggesting that Facebook might just have been asked to remove content as part of a wider political crackdown that saw police targeting queer activists in London and “pre-emptively” arresting a number of individuals in their homes.

A post on the Black Triangle Campaign’s website states that the Metropolitan Police refused a Freedom of Information Request on the issue, stating that: “These are questions relating to the operational policing of extremist organisations and as such the standard Neither Confirm Nor Deny approach applies”. The force thereby refused to acknowledge “whether communications with Facebook exist or whether requests regarding this matter were/were not made,” but clearly communicated its attitude towards the “extremist” groups that had been targeted.

If Facebook is to capitulate to state demands regarding “extremist” groups in the future, it’s likely that LGBT organisations will be targeted. Queer Resistance have already demonstrated their willingness to threaten the very stability of the nation by dressing as zombies during the Royal Wedding; similarly, the NUS Scotland LGBT Campaign recently protested against Brian Souter’s knighthood during a Royal Garden Party. Can we really trust the social network to back such dangerous types if pressured by the government or police?

Facebook is therefore a compelling yet dangerous phenomenon. This writer will readily admit her own personal addiction to the site, but the forced outing, gay hate groups and censorship are all pretty worrying. Besides, that boring blue-and-white colour scheme hasn’t been updated in over five years. Perhaps it’s time to go cold turkey.

 comments

  • Great article!

    I think from the information here, Facebook offers equality to LGB people; rather than actively supporting them.

    The last section seems to be a little moot, there is a likelihood that LGB groups may be taken down, and that likelihood is the same as any other group; it’ll happen if they cause any potential problems for Facebook, and it won’t be because of LGB connections. I’m guessing if they can pull it off, Anonplus will be the online home of activism groups when it launches.

    I’d never thought of the significance of not assuming heterosexuality, and displaying gay/bi in an equal manner. I’m sure there are many who are disappointed at being forced to choose between those three or four options, with no concessions made to people who prefer define as Queer, or Asexual, or anything else, but it looks like the Facebook are/is doing pretty well.

    Holly Hayes ∼ July 25th, 2011 10:41 am

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