Mar 10 2010

Sexuality: Are We Desperate To Be Labeled?

In the age of social media, our identity is all about labels.  Every social site is built around profiles, and every profile contains boxes and boxes and boxes of labels.  [What are your stats?  What are your interests?]  Does our love of public labels now extend to our previously private sexuality?  Or do gays and lesbians simply feel stronger in being part of a publicly labeled community?

In a reversal of a controversial policy, Microsoft announced that players will now be able to label themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, and Straight on its Xbox LIVE gaming service.  What I find most interesting about the announcement are the original policy and the reaction to its reversal.

The initial policy was rather strict, and would ban any user whose account made use of sexually oriented terms.  The reasoning given by Microsoft at the time was two-sided.  The publicly touted impetus for the policy was to protect users from being harassed for their sexual orientation.  The reason given to those who were actually banned was that their references to sexuality were offensive to other people (?).  Also a bit verkakte was the length to which the policy was enforced.  Richard Gaywood, albeit unfortunately named, was told his name would not be allowed on Xbox LIVE, no matter how real it might be.

Living Dead on Halo 3 by xhtmled

It is easy to understand why Microsoft eventually reversed its policy; times are changing, both for political correctness toward minorities and for gays’ rights specifically.  That said, Microsoft went a little further than to simply champion free speech – it has officially sanctioned a set of labels to be used in users’ profiles.  To sound out how really I felt about this, I browsed the comments in Mashable’s post on this policy change, and the readers’ reactions fell along three general ideas.  The first was humorous and all too true:

@Austin Alvarado “I thought Xbox Live already included labeling of my sexual orientation? I’m beginning to think I am actually gay given the many times the 13 year olds say I am.”

“Gay” has become the new “stupid” for the younger generation, and while it’s a sad state of affairs, it seems the majority of people recognize the idiocy of the trend.  Speaking of sad, the second reaction highlights the dangers still lurking for those brave enough to come out and stay out:

@Sam Spence “I hope those willing to post their orientation publicly are willing to take a LOT of flack.”

There’s not much more to be said about that unfortunate truth, so we’ll move on to the third and most interesting reaction:

@Alek Bock “That’s pretty cool. I don’t really understand what your sexual preference has to do with gaming, but whatever.”

My thoughts exactly.  I’m playing a game; why do I care whether you like girls, boys, both, neither, sheep, or trees?  I don’t.  I have generally tended toward the opinion that you may live your real life as you please, but when it comes to displaying an online label, sexual orientation belongs more on dating and hookup sites than worldwide gaming networks.  I’m not saying you can’t mention it, but why would you want to?

What this tells me is that sexual orientation is being incorporated into people’s sense of identity.  It must not be about needing to explain that you’re sexually attracted to the same gender (since it’s on a network that has absolutely nothing to do with sex), but rather it must be about needing to explain that you adopt the mannerisms and lifestyle commonly associated with people attracted to the same gender.  In other words, by using these labels in a non-sexual arena, you’re making the personality distinction between Bob and Gay Bob.

 LGBT Pride Parade SF ’09 by davidyuweb

And so I come back to the title of this post.  Social media is about connecting and sharing, and the sharing is about telling people who we think we really are.  We love our labels; our labels make us unique and special and tell the world every nuance of our personality.  Without our labels, we would be just another blank profile in the network.

Not everyone believes sexuality should be shared so openly, but if sexuality has become for the coming generations a significant aspect of personality and identity, then it is not such a stretch to understand why they would want that label displayed, too.

Why do you think people want to display sexuality labels in everyday services?  What are your thoughts on Microsoft’s policy and reversal?

Comment and share to keep the discussion going.  And subscribe via RSS or Email if you like this blog!

Photo credits: SF LGBT Pride 2009 by foxgrrl
Xbox. by maxwillis


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