Guest Op/Ed: The Impact of Homophobia in Virtual Communities

A few weeks ago there was a group established on Facebook called "I hate gays" which openly advocated killing gay people.

When the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) sent a report through Facebook's built in reporting system and then urged its Facebook and Twitter followers to do the same, the user was suspended, and the group abandoned and commandeered by pro-gay users in the matter of hours.

It seems that real people in those virtual communities, as well as the massive companies that run the platforms, don't like when people form groups that advocate killing people or targeting groups.

Now what happens when you take that model and you turn it to online gaming virtual communities?

To illustrate my point, take a look at this video previously highlighted on Kotaku and GayGamer to get a sense of the problem just in online gaming communities.

Halo 3: Homophobia Evolved (NSFW)

This isn't to say that all gamers feel and think this way. As we know, there's a great diversity in who plays computer and video games and how they think. But similar to other forms of mass medium entertainment-like music, books, and movies-the new frontier created by advances in technology, especially Internet technology, has increased ability to transmit our voices, images, and ideas. But it has also come with a greater capacity to harass, bully, and spread prejudices - often times with little-to-no repercussions.

The problem is widespread in these communities, with kids and adults alike throwing around virtual threats and threatening real world violence and death.

In 2006, a survey under supervision by the University of Illinois provided the first glimpse of "the social and behavioral demographics of gay video game players" as well as "the role of sexual orientation on gaming habits." Here are some highlights:

52.7% of those surveyed said the gaming community is "Somewhat Hostile" to gay and lesbian gamers, 14% said "Very Hostile."
When asked what forms of homophobia people have seen in the gaming community, here are some of what the surveyed said:

87.7% - Players use the phrase, "That's so gay."
83.4% - Players use the words "gay" or "queer" as derogatory names.
52.3% - Stereotypical representations of gay characters in games.
42.5% - Refusal of game designers to include well-developed gay characters.
49.4% - Invisibility of gaymers and/or the gaymer community.
When asked how frequently players experience homophobia, those surveyed who responded "Always" or "Frequently" equaled 42%. Add in "Sometimes" and it brings up that total to 74.5%.
When asked how often those players respond to the homophobia they witness – 50.9% total responded "Never" or "Rarely."

Keep in mind, that's a survey from 3 years ago. According to the Entertainment Software Association's 2009 Essential Facts, last year 68% of American households played video or computer games. It's an industry that continues to grow - from 2.6 billion dollars in sales in 1996 to 11.7 billion last year. And don't think it's child's play – the average player age is 35.

The problem is only getting worse and needs to be addressed with comprehensive and sustainable solutions. That's why GLAAD has announced an initiative to do just that – The Project on Homophobia & Virtual Communities – which kicks off with a groundbreaking panel discussion to be held on the Electronic Arts campus on July 18, 2009.

The panel discussion will include an assessment of the problem in these communities, policy solutions that have been developed to address homophobia – some that are working and those that are not - as well as looking to the future at the challenges and opportunities to combating homophobia in various sectors of the industry.

Confirmed panelists include representatives from XBox LIVE, Electronic Arts, Inc., Linden Lab, the Entertainment Software Association, and GayGamer.net.

There is no doubt that this is a complicated endeavor. While most companies do have some sort of policy in place that prohibits threats, advocating violence or death, and hate speech, there are major concerns with the effectiveness of those policies. Those concerns including the policies themselves, which in some cases ban self-identifying your orientation or using words like "gay" or "lesbian" altogether. They also include the mechanisms in place to report violations of the policies, many which don't allow you to submit evidence (i.e. recordings of in game audio/video). Then there is the lack of transparency once a user has been reported, leaving the harassed often feeling as if nothing has been done.

GLAAD's project has an established set of goals to address these concerns. To get companies to provide safe spaces for LGBT people in these virtual communities (which includes virtual worlds, online games, social networks, message boards, etc). To work with each of the companies to ensure they have solid policies in place that prevent anti-LGBT defamation where possible and mechanisms to report the defamation when it does occur. And what will be the most challenging in my eyes - to educate the user base about the real impact of their virtual homophobia.

However, what this comes down to is that this really is a company-by-company and a case-by-case project. For example, when a potentially anti-gay situation with the Old Republic message board arose, I reached out to Bioware about the situation and ended up getting a call back from a VP at Electronic Arts (EA), Bioware's parent company. After making sure the situation was corrected, he issued a statement through GLAAD, which we shared on our blog, and put me in touch with EA staff to continue conversations about the overall issue of homophobia in virtual communities.

Through ongoing conversations with EA, they have offered to host our upcoming panel on their private campus in Redwood City, CA, and have provided a panelist - a senior producer from the Maxis Studio. While I'm out in California I'll also be meeting with EA staff to discuss the issue of homophobia, their policies and begin working on a comprehensive plan to address it.

Microsoft has also had recent and ongoing dust-ups regarding their XBox LIVE policies being "anti-gay." After opening up a dialogue with them about the problems, they invited GLAAD out to their campus in Washington State for two days of meetings with XBox LIVE managers to review their systems, protocols and policies and provide recommendation on way to address the problem. We now have quarterly conference calls to continue working towards solutions.

These companies aren't monoliths and are very much committed to providing a safe and fun environment for all their players - they're just not all there yet.

We all know it's not going to happen overnight and it's not going to be easy. We have an uphill battle of policy issues, system improvements and campaigns to educate users on the real dangers of homophobia. In my job as GLAAD Director of Digital Media, I've also seen the real impact unchecked homophobia has on people's lives and how it leads to a climate of intolerance, to bullying and harassment, and can ultimately lead to violence and death, especially among children.

While the average player age may be 35, 25% of all game players are under 18. These are impressionable kids who are witnessing and then participating in anti-gay slurs, normalizing homophobia for them. They then take that behavior from their virtual worlds into their real world.

According to a 2007 report by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, "86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation."

In February of 2008, a 14-year-old took out a gun during class and killed a 15-year-old classmate because of the student's sexual orientation and gender identity. This past April, an 11-year-old boy in Massachusetts who didn't identify as gay hanged himself because of anti-gay bullying, as did another 11-year-old boy in Georgia. These are but a few examples.

Some may argue that these examples don't directly support the argument that unchecked homophobia in virtual communities leads to real world violence amongst kids. However, we can all agree that children learn what's appropriate and acceptable and how to treat others from their friends, families and from their communities. And that includes their virtual communities.

This is a problem we cannot leave unchecked.

For those who say this is bigger than just being about homophobia – that there are also issues like racism and sexism to be addressed - you are right. But keep in mind; while the work being done here is focused around fighting homophobia its implications will affect many other groups. If we work to help implement better reporting mechanisms, it helps everyone. If we work to provide better policies and safe spaces for LGBT people, those policies and spaces can be replicated for other groups as well.

If we are moving in a direction where so much of our communications and interactions occur in virtual communities, then maybe its about time we start considering how we can make the spaces civilized and safe, inviting millions more into the communities, and paving the way for the expansion of this technology into other areas of our real world.

We have an opportunity to learn from the lessons of our real-life society, to not repeat the same mistakes in our virtual ones.

We at GLAAD hope you'll join us in this effort.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is dedicated to promoting and ensuring fair, accurate and inclusive representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Justin J. Cole is GLAAD's Director of Digital Media