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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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12 comments

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  1. BrenDizzie

    >This is true for everything in Western society. We study things to "name" them, "define" reality in small, compact, and utterly unsophisticated terms.
    Why is online dating so hard, and online gaming so easy to make friends? Because online dating is viewing personality through a string of text, and no one can fall in love with empty symbols. Online gaming is the *doing* of something with other people – and there is no need to define in words how and with who you will have a good time.

    There is a philosophy that words (spoken and written) are like money. Money is a convention that removes the inconvenience of barter. It is much more convenient to trade this way, but money can *not* be used for anything essential – food, shelter, or clothing. Likewise, language is a convention that helps people to communicate more efficiently. But words themselves, spoken or written, cannot be used for anything of true value – experience, survival, or love.

    Labels, like on packages of food, are the stuff of illusion: For every true thing they speak, they lie about an infinite number of things. Someone "gay" or "straight" or "nice" or "mean" isn't any of that at all, and when you stop and think about all the labels you could associate with, do you really have the feeling that they are you, and you them?

  2. Wade Burch

    >I agree with you on the truth of words and labels, but that doesn't stop us from craving them – for ourselves to be expressed and for others to be classified and understood.

    Thank you for your thoughts, Brenda!

  3. tim gier

    >Words, and other symbols of communication, have at least two meanings: the meaning intended and the meaning received.

    I think we use labels because we hope to say something about who we are, and what we believe, in a way that we assume most people will understand. Because online communication is actually impersonal, labels act as a way for us to quickly personalize it.

    I will not be surprised to find more widespread use of labels & tags in the future as more and more diverse people go online, looking for something familiar in a vast, varied digital sea of humanity.

    Great post!

    ps: Microsoft did the right thing.

  4. Wade Burch

    >Hey, Tim! What an interesting thought. Labels are necessary because we
    have limited time and space to communicate ourselves, and every label is a
    chance to say more with less. I think I was thinking that, but I couldn't
    put it into words until I read your comment!

    Looking at it this way, and knowing that social media is integrating more
    and more with daily life, I agree with you that labels will become more and
    more ubiquitous.

    Thank you very much for your thoughts!
    ————————————————–

  5. RichardGaywood

    >"Richard Gaywood, albeit unfortunately named," Ouch. Words hurt, y'know.

  6. Wade Burch

    >Aye, and ye have my apologies if'n ye're truly wounded. How are you, Mr. Gaywood?

  7. Boyislost

    >I guess my suprise is why you think what your artcle states is somehow new or insightfull. I guess it's because as a streight person you've always been able to just rely on the common sterotype of this country that you don't have state your sexuality becuase everyone will automatically assume your streight. I'm glad you've come to realize for a large minority that strategy doesn't work.

  8. Wade Burch

    >Gary, I was trying to address specifically the idea that for many people sexuality labels don't seem necessary or appropriate in some specific places. I arrived at my own answer that sexuality is now less about who you are than it is about how you are – and in online social settings, we want everyone to know "how" we are like.

    What are your thoughts on that question?

    Thank you for your feedback!

  9. Boyislost

    >I guess you missed my point. The reason most people feel "sexuality
    labels don't seem necessary or appropriate" is becuase for
    hetrosexuals it's just always assumed and need not be spoken. As a gay
    man I've always needed to say no to that assumption in order to be
    true to my self. That's not about "how" I am it's about who I am.

    Yours Truely

    Gary Stein

  10. Wade Burch

    >I see.

    Thank you very much, Gary.

  11. Boyislost

    >Thanks for the original blog post that got me thinking!

  12. RichardGaywood

    >(Only just saw this reply, sorry!)

    It's Dr Gaywood, actually :o) I am fine thank you, and no, I'm not really wounded. I grew a sense of humour about my name a long time ago.

    The whole gamertag thing left me more bewildered than angry; it just seemed like such a stupid thing for them to care about. I'd been using my real name on Live for several years beforehand without experiencing any trouble at all beyond the usual cesspool of disconnects, spawncamping, baseraping, and other fun excesses of public matches. Ah well. To Microsoft's credit, they've since rationalised their stance from a total ban on sexual terms, which was a common-sense move.

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