This month, in many parts of the world, the LGBTQ+ community is celebrating Pride and, both online and off, the tech industry has paid lip service to supporting the community. Many social media companies participate in Pride parades or offer photo filters or other digital swag for users to show their support. Not everyone is thrilled about it—in San Francisco, for instance, activists spoke out against Google’s participation in Pride after YouTube (which is owned by Google) refused to take down harassment of a prominent gay journalist from its platform.
Regardless of one’s opinion on corporate Pride participation, it’s worth pointing out that social media companies’ policies often contradict their stated support. In the past, Facebook has been criticized by LGBTQ+ groups for its authentic name policy and for inconsistent moderation practices that banned the word "dyke" even when used as a reclaimed term by lesbians. And just last year, Facebook's new policy prohibiting "sexual solicitation" (which may have been influenced by SESTA/FOSTA) raised the ire of Pink News, which pointed out that it prevented users from discussing their sexual preferences freely, even in private groups. Worse yet, sex educators have noted that the policy restricts their ability to talk openly with the LGBTQ+ community about safer sex. These are not hypotheticals: Instagram temporarily banned educational account The Vulva Gallery last year after the policy change (the account was later reinstated). We believe that LGBTQ+ users are disproportionately affected by these policies, as content talking about sexuality is often viewed as being too sexual.
Of course, it's not just Facebook. Tumblr’s 2018 prohibition on all sexual and nude content has had a serious impact on the LGBTQ+ community, which had long used the platform for debate and coming together. Twitter's anti-harassment policies sometimes affect the targets of harassment they're intended to protect, rather than the harassers. And YouTube’s ban of transgender prosthetics company Transthetics (also later reversed) prevented the company from reaching potential customers, for whom its products can make a huge real-life difference in how they view themselves.
As many companies move to restrict sexual speech, either as the result of SESTA/FOSTA’s influence, their shareholders and advertisers, or any other reason, they must learn to behave like real allies and consider the impact their policies and practices will have on the very communities they claim to support.