Tech is getting more gay-friendly

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by CNN

KREM.com

Posted on July 3, 2012 at 3:37 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 3 at 6:42 PM

(CNN) -- James Lazar is married to a man. He won't buy anniversary cards that picture a man and a woman. He didn't want his Facebook page to show those symbols, either.

"I don't like being forced into typical gender roles -- because we aren't," he said by phone. "I think it's offensive."

The 38-year-old Chicago man wouldn't have considered changing his Facebook status to "married" until recently -- not because he wants privacy, but because Facebook hadn't created icons for same-sex couples. His marriage would have tagged with a cake-topper-looking picture of a male-and-female couple, and there was no way to change it.

But on Saturday or Sunday -- Facebook won't say specifically when -- the 900-million-person social network updated its marriage icons to include one for men who marry men and women who marry women. The changes took place automatically for many people. Lazar updated his status because of the news.

"I honestly didn't realize it was going to show up in my feed," he said with a laugh. "I have 80,000 people 'liking' it and congratulating me and I'm like, 'Well, it was seven years ago!' "
Facebook added these same-sex marriage icons over the weekend.
Facebook added these same-sex marriage icons over the weekend.

Facebook's icon shift may seem like a relatively minor update, but for some members of the LGBT community it's a sign that the social network -- and other tech products that, increasingly, serve as some sort of stand-in for real-world identity -- are becoming more inclusive of LGBT people.

"People can say 'Who cares, that's just an icon,' but we definitely don't see it as that because of the scale of this platform and because of its role in our culture today," said Allison Palmer, a spokeswoman for GLAAD, a group that advocates for fair inclusion of LGBT people in the media. She added: "There's more marriage equality on Facebook than there is generally in the United States. In most states your marriage can be recognized by Facebook but not your state."

This is just Facebook's latest step in reaching out to the gay community. The social network in 2011 added "in a domestic partnership" and "in a civil union" to its list of relationship statuses, which long has included everything from "in a relationship" to "it's complicated." This summer it painted a courtyard at its California headquarters in the colors of the rainbow flag, in support of gay-pride month. The company likes to brag that the courtyard, which displays the word "HACK," is visible from space.

And the trend, of course, isn't limited to Facebook. Apple recently updated its mobile operating system, iOS, to include text-message "emojis" of same-sex couples. Google employees march in gay pride parades, and the company controversially added a rainbow feature to its search engine last summer in support of the gay and lesbian communities.

MySpace (remember that?) added "Gay" as a relationship status in 2003 and the dating site eHarmony added same-sex icons on a spinoff site in 2009 following a lawsuit. Check out a timeline of same-sex icons in tech history on BuzzFeed.

Facebook, however, has become a specific target for LGBT activist groups in part because the network does so much these days to shape a person's digital identity. The social network has formed a taskforce in collaboration with LGBT groups to address issues sensitive to them.

That doesn't mean there's always been a warm reception for these changes.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes published an update to his page over the weekend indicating that he had married his boyfriend Sean Eldridge. The item got media attention because of the recently released same-sex icons, and Hughes' history with Facebook. More than 2,700 people "liked" the update, but one person commented that the marriage was "NOT normal!!!!!!" Another used a derogatory term for gay people.

Last year, in a highly publicized case, Facebook deleted a photo of two men kissing, which was seen as violating its terms of use. Facebook apologized and the take-down was chalked up to Facebook's arduous process for vetting content that is flagged as inappropriate.

Additionally, some LGBT advocates have called for Facebook to include gender options that go beyond "male" and "female" -- such as "third gender" or "other" -- for people who have another gender identity. Facebook has said such users can opt out of selecting a gender on the site, according to news reports.

And there has been debate about the role Facebook plays in outing people as gay or straight. In his 2010 profile of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Jose Antonio Vargas writes about the difficult choice he faced about Facebook and sexuality.

"Users are asked to check a box to indicate whether they're interested in men or in women. I told Zuckerberg that it took me a few hours to decide which box to check. If I said on Facebook that I'm a man interested in men, all my Facebook friends, including relatives, co-workers, sources -- some of whom might not approve of homosexuality -- would see it." He added: "Facebook had asked me to publish a personal detail that I was not ready to share."

LGBT Facebook users can opt to have their relationship status seen by only a certain category of Facebook friends, although users need to know how to navigate those setttings in order to hide the information from some groups of people. That may seem like no big deal, but consider that in 29 states, a person legally can be fired for being gay, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

For Lazar, the man in Chicago, and his husband, Paul Buranosky, the same-sex icons provided a new way to show that they're proud of their relationship. Lazar compared it to flying a rainbow, gay-pride flag in front of their home in a mostly-straight neighborhood.

Buranosky, however, had changed his status to "married" before the same-sex icons were released. He said he wanted to recognize his wedding on the digital network in whatever way was available at the time -- even if his timeline had a picture of man and woman next to the item about his 2005 wedding.

When the new icon was released, he said, "I was deeply excited."

"The little things like that are really important as a gay man," he said. "When you're' taking about marriage, it's all about the vernacular and the context of where things are. It makes a distinction. I think having those icons that are two men is really important."

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