When The Consumerist’s Meg Marco blogged about Teresa, a gamer who identified herself as a lesbian in her Xbox Live profile, then was harassed by vicious homophobes before being booted off the service by Microsoft, the implication was that the company saw no place for talk of sexual orientation on its family-friendly service. It didn’t help that Microsoft, which receives generally high marks from advocacy groups advocating equal treatment based on sexual orientation, basically confirmed this in a statement it put out to the Consumerist and other websites who inquired about the issue.
Basically, Microsoft’s policy boils down to this: Whether you’re gay or straight, you’re not allowed to have anything about sexual orientation in your gamertag or profile. Discussing sexual orientation in voice chat is cool, but anything in text, apparently, is strictly verboten.
Of course, the practical effect of this really only applies to gays and lesbians. If no one states their sexual orientation, most people will assume gamers they meet are hetrosexual until they’re told otherwise. Similarly, Xbox Live (and other online communities where users are largely anonymous) are hotbeds of homophobia. The fairly large pool of gay (and gay-friendly) gamers might like a way to get together for the occasional game of “Halo 3” where they don’t have to hear a bunch of insensitive jerks casually drop slurs every 5 seconds.
So not surprisingly, Microsoft’s current policy on this issue strikes many within the community of gay gamers as inadequate. What early coverage of this issue tended to leave out is that Microsoft apparently feels this way, too, as evidenced by a blog post by Microsoft’s Stephen Toulouse, who handles Xbox Live policy for Microsoft, as well as an excellent interview Toulouse conducted with MTV’s Stephen Totilo.
Part of the reasons words like gay and lesbian are banned, Toulouse said, is that because the words have essentially become co-opted. They’re used pejoratively (as in, “That’s so gay.”) far more often than they are legitimately. Until Microsoft can come up with a way in which the words can be used in the latter sense, but not the former, they’re kind of stuck. Personally, I rather like Totilo’s idea for a check-off box where gamers could signal their sexual orientation. In fact, I’d rather see Xbox Live profiles evolve to the point where they contain the same breadth of information one might find on a Facebook or MySpace page.
Strangely, the most controversial aspect of this story was pushed to the backburner, and that’s that Teresa, the lesbian gamer, was apparently stalked and hounded over Xbox Live by another gamer, who kept following her into other gaming sessions and urging other users to file complaints about Teresa’s profile. If we, as gamers, are ever going to have the mature, civil virtual worlds we want and deserve, we’re all going to have to collectively stand up to these anonymous bullies, whether they harass people based on sexual orientation, race, gender, age or any number of factors. Next time you’re on Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and someone drops a slur, stand up to them, or at least use the feedback system to file a complaint against that gamer. It takes a village, people.