Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Censoring sexual orientation "equally"

Consumerist reports that Microsoft will ban anyone who mentions their sexual orientation on the XBox Live site. Microsoft's official policy is to prohibit anything suggesting "content of a potentially sexual nature," and to them that includes "expression of any type of orientation, be that hetero or other." Thus, Microsoft has it that its policy is non-discriminatory: straight and queer people alike are forbidden from mentioning their sexual orientation. (H/t feministing.)

As recently reported by the Washington Blade, the Washington Post continues to take a similar approach to discussion of sexual orientation in its reporting. The Post believes that all subjects of their journalism are "entitled" to make their sexual orientation "a private matter," whether they are straight or queer; accordingly, the paper will not discuss orientation unless it is "relevant."

The problem with both of these policies is that not talking about sexual orientation does not treat everyone equally. In a society where most people identify as heterosexual, and more importantly, where heterosexuality is ubiquitously assumed, heterosexuals have no need to identify their orientation: the default assumption has done it for them.

Moreover, given the strong default assumption of heterosexuality, a policy that nominally limits all discussion of sexual orientation is almost certainly to be applied selectively. The Blade story notes that the Post has come in for particular criticism regarding its failure to mention surviving same-sex partners in obituaries. Yet the Post's obits routinely mention different-sex spouses in passing - precisely because the fact of being in a different-sex relationship is not thought be a reference to sexual orientation, while being in a same-sex one is.

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