The transparency that online social networking imposes is something that takes getting used to. For many people, exposing yourself to a potentially immense and judgmental community can be new and scary. But many gay people love that function of Facebook because it makes one primary but traditionally fraught ritual of gay and lesbian life so much easier. That would be coming out. Facebook is like drive-thru coming out: quick, cheap and open all night.
Coming out used to be an exhausting process. You had to come out again and again and again to all your friends at different times. Nowadays, even with social networking, gays still have to come out, but one of the key differences between our pre-profile selves and our new online presentations is that now (finally!) the burden is also on our friends to discover and digest our identities. For the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Facebook et al have finally leveled the identity field, and it's kinda nice. (See a visual history of the gay-rights movement, from Stonewall to Prop 8.)
I remember the apprehension I had prior to going to a high school reunion in the days before Facebook was popular. I didn't care who knew I was sapphically inclined. I just resented having to tell them. Fast forward to now. My long-lost buddy Jill from middle school (married to a guy and with two small children) recently found me on Facebook. She had responded to some posts on my page about the lesbian soap opera The L Word, so it was safe to assume that she had figured me out.
"I did know you were gay," she told me when I inquired about how she digested my profile. "Maybe even a hunch at 14 but pretty sure I may have heard it somewhere along the road as an adult, although I can't remember how or when. When I read your L Word write-ups, it only confirmed what I knew." Jill knew. Still, I didn't know she knew. But I didn't need to come out to her. Jill was covered when she friended me. (Check out a story about your Facebook relationship status.)
The system works within the community as well. When I last heard of my friend Harreld, he was well ensconced in a long-term relationship with a man. But when our paths crossed on Facebook earlier this year, I saw that he had been in a relationship with a woman for some time. I had no idea Harreld was a practicing bisexual.
He isn't as burdened by the continual process of coming out as I am. But he too finds Facebook to be convenient. "I didn't have to have the same conversation a thousand times," he says. "Plus, there's a radical empowerment that comes from declaring your identity in the public sphere." Yes, Harreld does actually talk that way.
For trans people, the markers of identity can be extremely multifaceted. One friend transitioned from female to male in the past year, seemingly in real time on Facebook: Lucy became Andy and it said so right under his picture. I talked to Andy and he told me that Facebook had proven to be a valuable tool. "I just came from a courthouse where they practically want you to undress to be approved for official gender reassignment," he said. "But on Facebook, I could do it myself and under my own terms. I made that announcement in my own town square." Andy says that the name change sparked questions from various friends, but he expected to have those conversations and was happy to take care of it all at once.
Of course, there are good ways of coming out on Facebook and maybe not-so-good ways.
Good: Noting your relationship in your profile.
Not so good: Tagged photos of you and your partner in matching leather harnesses.
Good: Adding large numbers of LGBT-ish entities to your fan list. Rachel Maddow, female golfers, Harvey Milk, various Calvin Klein models and almost anything related to Gossip Girl will do.
Not so good: Fan-listing gay porn stars.
Good: Highlighting your LGBT identity in your status update on National Coming Out Day.
Not so good: Outing someone else in your status update by announcing a rendezvous.
Good: Telling your parents in person rather than relying on Facebook to do the work for you. C'mon, there are still some things you have to do the old-fashioned way.
Not so good: Duh ... Letting your parents figure it out while they try out this newfangled Facebook thing.
Good: Joining your workplace LGBT network on Facebook.
Not so good: Super-poking your hot co-worker.
Of course, transparency is a double-edged sword, no matter your sexual orientation. "I got brutally dumped recently," Harreld told me. "And I changed my relationship status to respect her wishes. But I didn't know that making that change would appear in everyone's feed and I certainly didn't want it to. Everyone saw that my relationship was over and commented on it." Ouch. Painfully inconvenient regardless of your sexual identity. As they say, "It's complicated."