If you're the hottest dot-com in the Valley--as Facebook undoubtedly is--you're going to come under occasional scrutiny. Over the past few days, it's been circulating around the Web that the social networking phenomenon won't let people sign up with the last name "Gay," which has led to accusations of homophobia.
Online LGBT hub GenerationQ put it in the harshest of terms, pointing out that "you're allowed to be Hitler, but don't even try being Gay on social networking site Facebook."
There is indeed reason to find Facebook's blocking of Gay as a surname a bit inappropriate. Gay is a last name, and not an inconspicuous one: According to the 1990 census, "Gay" was the 774th most-common last name in the United States; it's no Smith or Johnson, but I'm willing to bet it outranked, say, "Zuckerberg." It also happens to be the last name of one of my favorite contemporary authors. Additionally, there's been a Gay Street in Manhattan's West Village since around 1830.
But we shouldn't be so quick to point fingers at Facebook, since this was probably the action of a very small number of developers, not the company as a whole--if it was even on the part of anyone at Facebook. The most likely scenario is that some kind of data set was put in place--the sort that would be used to prevent offensive license plate letter and number combinations, for example--to prevent people from registering with unsavory or offensive names. That doesn't mean that "Gay" should be banned. It just means that, most likely, it was not a conscious decision on the part of anyone at Facebook and it was not done with homophobic undertones.
It's also likely that, given the recent blog coverage, Facebook will start allowing people to register with the last name "Gay" once again.
I take issue with the somewhat sensationalist title of Pete Cashmore's post on Mashable, "Facebook Says No To Gays." But Cashmore's actual post has the right idea: "Pretty obviously, Facebook is just trying to prevent people from injecting this infantile humor into their fake profile names--if anything, it prevents homophobia."
Commenters on the LGBT blog GaySocialites.com took a similar angle. "I never really thought about it in a way that wouldn't be protective in filtering out offensive use of a false surname," one reader said. Another reader added, "While I am sure it is a legitimate last name, I agree that the reason for not allowing it was probably to prevent homophobic people from creating obscene and offending profiles."
Facebook, meanwhile, still allows its members to list on their profiles whether they are interested in men, women or both--or to skip filling out that field entirely.