Gay on Facebook: It’s complicated

Facebook is helping erode the isolation that was long a hallmark of being an LGBT youth. It is one thing to see gay people on television or other websites, but something different to count them among your friends.

“It’s a great connector,” said Charles Robbins, executive director of the Trevor Project, an organization that seeks to prevent gay teen suicides. “LGBT youth can find other people so that they know that they’re not alone, and this is especially true for many young people who are in rural America, who might not know another LGBT person in the area that they’re living.

“But it can also be a place of negativity when people are posting unfortunate information or gossip, or are basically being mean or rude,” Robbins added. “It is very easy for a young person to be mean online.”

Facebook’s potential for vitriol was fully realized on the planning page for National Spirit Day, where organizers asked people to wear purple on Oct. 20, 2010, to mourn several gay youth who had recently committed suicide after being bullied.

“Faggots deserve a good old lynching,” read one of the comments posted on the National Spirit Day page.

“God hates fags and they’re bitches I hope they all die,” read another, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which reported that it received more than 1,800 e-mails complaining about the offensive comments. Facebook policy forbids hateful comments, and staff members remove comments that are reported for violating rules.

“But it’s not just about removing bad content, it’s also about preventing it,” said Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook. “We believe that educating people about the lasting and damaging impact of hateful remarks is a shared responsibility and that’s why we routinely call upon top internet safety experts for advice and resources.”

In response to the gay teen suicides of fall 2010, Facebook launched its “Network of Support,” partnering with the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign and several other LGBT organizations.

“We look forward to working with these organizations on initiatives to provide better resources for LGBT teens and everyone who wants to keep the Internet a safe place,” Noyes said.

Ironically, the same generation of LGBT youth that is experiencing greater acceptance than ever before is also encountering unique challenges that didn’t exist a decade ago.

“You no longer have to be a strong person to be a bully,” Robbins said. “When we were growing up, the bullies were usually the larger or stronger people who were physically bigger, now young people have to deal with cyber bullies who can take all shapes and forms.”

Levels of discretion

Ruben Anthony used to be weary of receiving compliments. Although out to his friends and family for about four years, Anthony was not used to explicitly sharing that part of his life with them when he joined Facebook in 2009.

“When I would post pics, I would get light flirting or compliments from guys — most as private messages, but some on public display,” Anthony said. “At first, I was troubled. I thought, what would my family and friends say? Then I thought, who gives a shit. So then I warmed up to it and I appreciate the compliments now.”

Still, Anthony said he operates on Facebook as he does in real life: with a certain amount of discretion and offering information on a need-to-know basis. He doesn’t indicate his sexual orientation on his profile, for the same reason he doesn’t list his religion.

“I usually don’t post anything that would spark a debate,” he said. “I’m not afraid of the fight, but I choose my fights carefully.”

Anthony has posted comments in gay-related discussions and blocked friends who post anti-gay content, but he’s also deleted gay friends who didn’t adhere to informal Facebook etiquette.

“From my understanding, you review the person’s page and what they post, and if they are discreet, you private message them, and if they’re not so discreet, then public is okay,” Anthony said. “They will let you know when you have crossed the line.”

Anthony said it is not hard for people to tell that he is gay based on his Facebook profile, but it is not something that friends from his past have asked about.

“I think of people in my past as sitting back and watching,” Anthony said with a laugh.

Several people who knew Andrea Holmes when she was younger have sent her Facebook messages inquiring about why her profile says that she is interested in women.

“A lot of the questions I would get are ‘Why do you want to be gay?’ or guys I knew telling me that I was too cute to turn lesbian,” Holmes said. “I didn’t really care because these are people I hadn’t seen in years, and it just didn’t matter to me what anyone else thought.”

Coming out en masse

Lark Ballinger was known as one of the smartest kids in his elementary school — the perennial winner of the school’s spelling bee for half a decade, and the valedictorian of his eighth grade class in 1994. He was also known as Carl.

So it was quite a surprise to his classmates when someone posted their third-grade class picture and the conversation led to the news that Carl now “wears a wig and high heels” and is known as Lark. Instead of changing genders, Ballinger forsook binary confines, identifying as gender neutral and assuming an androgynous name.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all,” Ballinger said about his classmates’ cyber speculation that he had become a drag queen. “People are curious. They see someone change their name and they’re not really sure what that means. I want to be in a place where folks can feel comfortable talking about these issues without shame or fear or stigma.”

As a community organizer for a gay non-profit organization, Ballinger loads his status updates with gay content, and said he has never received negative feedback.

After a decade of estrangement from his family due to Ballinger coming out as queer in his teens, Ballinger was friended by a relative on Facebook in 2009 and was soon cyber-reunited with many of his family members — an experience he chronicled in a Facebook note.

“I briefly wondered, worried even, about some of the things I routinely posted on subjects that openly discussed what my family has already known about me, but never addressed directly since I left home,” Ballinger wrote. “I passively waited for some Wall post asking questions.”

Instead, his family members responded to his new identity as Lark by embracing Ballinger.

“It was really shocking and surprising to receive the support I got from my family, and I even learned that I wasn’t the only queer person in my family,” Ballinger said.

“I could have done it without Facebook, but Facebook made it easy because I could do it with a lot of people at one time.”

Privacy concerns linger

As someone who identifies as neither male nor female, Ballinger would like to see Facebook allow users to list “gender queer” as their gender, while there are numerous online efforts to pressure Facebook to add a transgender option, as well.

Facebook spokesperson Noyes declined to comment about whether the company would add more gender options.

Facebook garnered praise earlier this year when it announced that users could select “civil unions” and “domestic partnership” as their relationship status, a move that came after consultations with the “Network of Support.”

“This had been a highly requested feature from users and, generally, we want to provide options for people to genuinely and authentically reflect their relationships on Facebook,” Noyes said. “We will monitor user reaction and requests, and assess how to move forward with the rollout based on how this is going and peoples’ response.”

The company’s gay-friendly posture extends to the offline world, as well, with Facebook reimbursing LGBT employees for the taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits, and including sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy.

However, Facebook has also been criticized for its handling of information regarding LGBT users, with an October 2010 study suggesting that advertisers can discern gay users of Facebook — even if their sexual orientation is not disclosed.

Noyes cited Facebook’s convoluted privacy policy while denying that the site allows advertisers to take personal information from users’ profiles or web activity, but added that, “We recommend that people always exercise caution when filling out forms about themselves online.”

In some ways, privacy is the antithesis to a website dedicated to allowing people to share everything about themselves.

“That’s the problem with Facebook: If you’re only out to a few people and not to everyone, then you always have to remind yourself what you can post and what you can’t,” said Robbins from the Trevor Project, which operates its own, monitored social network for gay youth and allies between the age of 13-24.

Still, having LGBT people on Facebook is one of the keys to the next wave of social acceptance, Robbins said.

“The more and more Americans that see that LGBT people are in the fabric of our lives, in every sector, from all kinds of geographic areas, and they see that we’re just people, I think that is a good thing,” he said.