IT’S LATE – my phone rings. It’s someone I haven’t heard from in a while. I answer.
His greeting is warm, but it sounds like he’s been drinking.
He chats about Facebook – he says he doesn’t use it much but he’s logged in and noticed the rainbow filter on my profile picture, the only one among his list of friends on the site.
He says he is concerned because he has just read an article claiming that sex offenders have been ordered to use rainbow profile pictures on social media so others can easily identify them as potential predators.
He asks if I have seen the article and seems honestly concerned that I should change my profile picture to avoid any misunderstanding. It’s hard to tell if he is serious, due to the potential influence of alcohol and his previous love of practical jokes.
I suggest he may be have misunderstood, as the rainbow filter was a legitimate campaign created by Facebook and used by 26 million people worldwide to mark the US Supreme Court ruling in favour of marriage equality in all 50 states, which coincided with the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the biggest weekend of LGBT Pride celebrations in the world.
I try to explain that either the article he has seen is intended as a joke (though in poor taste), or it was written by someone with a negative agenda against the LGBT community.
The conversation moves on and we end the call. But I can’t let it go. I wake in the night, angry that someone could write an article like this, and sad that the caller would believe it so easily.
I recall the time when, as a teacher at a Roman Catholic primary school, a priest tells me I should reconsider my future in Catholic education because if I got to a certain age and did not marry, people would think I am unsafe with their children.
I recall the time a neighbour tells our landlord, in an attempt to get moved to a better place, that he caught glimpses through my window of me looking at illicit images of children on my PC. He is relocated to a larger house – the police are supportive but I feel unable to take legal action against him for fear that publicity of the case would harm my career with children and young people.
I recall my hard work to rebuild the reputation of the LGBT youth group I have worked with for ten years after a former youth leader is suspected of inappropriate contact with vulnerable members of the group, and how the assumption that older gay men are predators comes up again and again, even among professional social workers who ought to know better, as I support these vulnerable young adults.
Most of all, I recall coming out to my late night caller and getting the worst reaction I have had from anyone – I later learn that, as a teenager, he was propositioned by an older male in a public toilet, and assumes I can’t be gay because that is all gay men do, all they can be.
I try to make sense of this. I Google ‘rainbow profile pictures for sex offenders’ and discover the article he read, on a so-called satirical website. I read some of the comments on the article and am appalled to see that some people clearly believe it, or could not understand how it could be offensive:
I find an article on another website exposing and discrediting the article, which reveals that it originated as a meme on a Facebook group (which Facebook removed and they reposted) and was picked up by at least two other ‘fake news’ sites.
I am moved to vulnerable tears by memories of when people implied that I could be a sex offender because of my sexuality.
Then I am moved to righteous anger and a passion for justice to write of this experience and expose the article and its author as homophobic.
Wikipedia defines satire as:
a genre… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
It’s hard to see how this article’s claim to satire is justified. If the intended target is the US Supreme Court, which some believe has ‘shamed’ America by making marriage equality a matter for federal law, it falls far and wide of the mark. Its attempt at wit is at the expense of countless people who have spent more than forty years campaigning against this kind of prejudice and public shaming to win legal protection for their rights and relationships.
We may have come a long way from the days when a US Police Department issued a public information film called ‘Boys Beware’ – but there’s still work to be done when teachers still fear disciplinary action or losing their job for talking to the children in their care in age-appropriate ways about homophobic bullying and valuing diversity.