Tumblr announced today that users can no longer search "#gay," "#lesbian," and "#bisexual" on their iPhone app. The reason? They don't want to violate Apple's contract terms, which ban apps that carry porn. And since a fraction of their total users post porn, Tumblr thinks this "#gay" filter is an easy way around Apple's rules and regulations.
"The reason you see innocent tags like #gay being blocked on certain platforms is that they are still frequently returning adult content which our entire app was close to being banned for," said CEO David Carp. He promises "smarter"filters in the future, but in the meantime this is the law of the land: no #gay on mobile apps.
But Baltimore Sun's Michael Gold and many others have pointed out that Tumblr's mobile search still finds anti-gay words like "fag" and "faggot," a direct violation of Apple's prohibitions on hate speech, and erecting a porous filter -- "#bi" still turns up porn, apparently -- makes a mockery of free speech. Instead of blaming Apple, Tumblr should have extended its online "safe search" filter to its mobile app. "If Tumblr is committed to free speech -- as they should be, and I'm not advocating Tumblr prevent users from posting either hate-speech or pornography -- it could have made filtered search the default option on an iPhone," wrote Gold.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Slog reports that the city's largest skyscraper, Columbia Center, has blocked gay news sites from its free wi-fi, including It Gets Better, the video project created to prevent teen suicide. If users try to log on from the Center's server, they get this message: "This is a known 'sexual orientation' web site which is blocked as specified by your web content filtering policy."
(Apple once censored an innocuous Oscar Wilde comic because of its "gay" content. It later reversed its decision.)
This story has played out before and elsewhere: The Pentagon was criticized in January for blocking LGBT websites, and there's no shortage of schools that have attempted to do the same. Here's a short list: Gwinnett County Schools, Georgia; Vineland School District, New Jersey, Camdenton School District, Missouri; Knox County and Nashville School District, Tennesee. The ACLU thwarted all of these efforts to block LGBT information.
In these and similar scenarios, the specter of ill-defined "inappropriate content" has loomed large. The same fears and stereotypes are seen in arguments against gay teachers or, more recently, gay Boy Scout leaders. Either children would be corrupted or viruses would be contracted from porn sites or "such things" shouldn't be viewed in public. That's because even in 2013, even after the end of DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell and Brokeback Mountain and Milk and Modern Family, LGBT people, particularly gay men, are still seen as acts, not people with hearts and minds and personalities. And, let's face it, there's a huge number of us who aren't getting laid. Does that make us less gay?
In the end, nobody's made more safe by blocking "#gay" or even porn. The only people who suffer are those looking for news and information and connections and community.