If Facebook’s goal is to make the world more open and connected, it could start by treating queer communities with equality.
Facebook at Dublin Pride march. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Facebook is celebrating Pride month by participating in Pride marches in more than 20 cities around the world, highlighting its support of queer employees, and offering fun features to users to express their solidarity.
Such measures are important, and can help queer Facebook employees and users of the platform to feel included and seen. One feature, a rainbow "reaction" ("like") button, allows users to express their pride, or solidarity, in response to posts. But as Sarah Kessler pointed out at Quartz, that feature was only rolled out to users in certain markets...namely, "major markets with Pride celebrations." Other users are able to opt in to the feature by liking Facebook's official LGBTQ@Facebook page.
But as it turns out, some users are unable to access the feature at all. Last week, I witnessed a conversation on Facebook where some of my friends in Cairo were confused as to why they couldn't use the feature. My friends, allies to the LGBTQ community, followed the instructions put forth by Facebook and could see others using the button, but could not enable it for their own accounts.
After sending out some messages to friends in other places, I discovered that the feature was unavailable in a number of countries, including Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain, Lebanon, Singapore, Russia, and the UAE. While Facebook admits—in both its press release and in response to a question posed by a Singaporean user on its official LGBTQ page—that the feature isn't available everywhere yet, my testing demonstrated that it's widely available throughout the world...except in places where homosexuality is either illegal or of questionable legal status.
Facebook hasn't said why the feature is restricted to those particular countries, but the company is likely worried about putting users at risk. That's a fair concern, to be sure—gay and bi men are being rounded up and killed in Chechnya, for example—but it's worth noting that Facebook's "authentic name" policy is part of why such users are at risk to begin with. Despite protests from queer users for nearly a decade, Facebook has continued to reaffirm the value of the policy in promoting "civility," despite evidence to the contrary.
Furthermore, not all of the countries where the feature is restricted are alike; Lebanon, for example, has made strides in recent years to decriminalize homosexual conduct...a far cry from Russia's level of persecution.
Joseph Aoun, community center manager of Helem—an organization that works for the protection of LGBTQI individuals in Lebanon—sees discriminatory undertones in Facebook's rollout of this—and other—features.
"Facebook policies have [contained] a lot of discrimination in so many aspects," Aoun told me. "It's the same when a certain terrorist attack happens in Lebanon, we don't have the safety check. Unfortunately, the world nowadays is built on the priorities of … people who are living in Western countries, especially white people who are living in those countries."
Nevertheless, he says, "Pride is about Western history that doesn't relate to our internal struggle in Lebanon, but we would still appreciate if this discrimination wasn't happening. Pride still means something for LGBTQI individuals in the region."
A pride button may also seem trivial to many, including LGBTQ activists who have fought much harder battles over time. But a Silicon Valley company making the decision to restrict access to an opt-in feature in certain countries—even if for the safety of users in those places—is patronizing and denies agency to the brave LGBTQ individuals living there. It's important that companies like Facebook stand up for marginalized communities, but empty platitudes aren't how rights are won. If—as its mission statement claims—Facebook's goal is to make the world more open and connected, it could start by treating queer communities with equality.