Privacy Hub

Can You 'Out' Someone If The Public Already Assumes That They're Gay?


Editor's Note: This column appeared on Towleroad ahead of "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett's public coming out earlier today. You can find Smollet's interview with Ellen here.  

The Interplay is a special biweekly series exploring the intersections of sex, pop culture, and current events.


We all need to give Malik Yoba a break. Earlier this week Yoba, who currently stars as Vernon Tucker on Fox’s “Empire,” apologized and backtracked on statements he made in an interview late last month to Black Film in which he “outed” “Empire” co-star Jussie Smollett. Smollett, who plays the openly gay (if sometimes conflicted) Jamal, has stepped into the spotlight for his role in making “Empire’s” nuanced depiction of a black family’s reaction to its gay son. 

Over the course of the season so far, “Empire” has generally treated Jamal’s plotlines with as much deftness as a campy primetime soap can muster. The recurring flashbacks of Jamal’s father shoving him into a garbage can for dressing up in his mother’s clothes are more than played out. But the complicated relationship between Jamal and his mother Cookie--played flawlessly by Taraji P. Henson--are a breath of fresh air in a sea of media narratives that cast most families of color as unwaveringly homophobic. 

Smollett’s performance perfectly captures tension many queer man of color have experienced with their traditional fathers and the messy, love-strewn bond we often share with our mothers. Also Smollett’s a solid singer, which is always great for a show that’s 40% musical.


Acting and singing aside, there’s one thing in particular that has consistently made Smollett’s performance feel particularly authentic for many “Empire” fans, myself included: a lot of us already thought that he was gay.

 In many ways the discussion and speculation around Smollett’s sexuality has mirrored the ways in which “Empire” has handled Jamal’s. From the very first episode “Empire” treated Jamal’s sexulity as something of an open secret. Jamal’s rise to fame within his family’s record company is initially stalled because of his father’s (Lucious) long standing homophobia. His mother, fresh out of prison, quickly meets his boyfriend, Michael, who lives in an apartment that Lucious pays for knowing that his son is living in at least two different types of sin. 

 Many of Smollett’s fans came to the show having made similar assumptions about his sexualiy if only for the fact people usually assume that gay characters are played by gay actors. While that logic might not be the most sound, it’s often how people conceptualize the characters and actors they admire. Some stars, like Jack Falahee, find the speculation and endless questions tiring, but at the end of the day it’s a part of the job.

I don’t think that what Malik Yoba said about Smollett can really be described as an “outing” in the usual sense of the word. Outing someone against their will is a controversial practice because of all the social damages that can be wrought upon a person’s reputation. In some instances, people justify outing a public officials who, while secretly gay, actively work in opposition to LGBT rights. In other situations outing someone is just an easy way to hurt someone. Regardless of the situation, all forcible public outings have one thing in common: the bulk of the public doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t assume, that the person in question is actually gay.


For many people, Smollett’s sexulity was never really a subject of discussion. Given some of his past work and certain social media posts, it’s easy to see why many thought he was gay, and that idea, whether it’s right or wrong, makes Yoba’s statements ham-handed at worst, but far from an act of social violence. Unlike celebrities who spend a fair amount of time in glass closets, the possible secrecy surrounding Smollett’s sexuality is weakened by the not so uncommon perception that he’s both gay and long-since out of the closet.

If there’s one thing Yoba can be blamed for, it’s sparking off a heightened scrutiny of Smollett’s personal life that works against his “Empire” success. Outing celebrities, especially actors, carries with it the threat of irreversibly changing the types of roles that queer performers are able to take on. The casual assumptions about Smollett up until this point were proof that regardless of his actual sexuality fans would continue to watch “Empire” and support Smollett’s career. 

If respect for Smollett’s privacy and a vested interest in his success are actually things we’re concerned about, then the best course of action is to let folks keep wondering and find something else to gab about.

Facebook Begins Enforcing 'Real Name' Policy, Disproportionately Affecting GLBT Performers

My Name Is Roma

Facebook requires members to use their real names, a fact of which most folks are likely unaware due to the policy largely being unenforced, a decision quite possibly made due to the substantial blowback Google Plus received with their mandatory real name policy that they only recently rescinded. However, Facebook is now cracking down on their policy and the fallout is a disproportionate effect on LGBT individuals and drag performers in particular.

In a remarkably tone-deaf response in an interview with Business Insider, a Facebook representative said:

If people want to use an alternative name on Facebook, they have several different options available to them, including providing an alias under their name on their profile, or creating a Page specifically for that alternative persona.

As part of our overall standards, we ask that people who use Facebook provide their real name on their profile.

Fan Pages and Musician/Group categories are how stars like Lady Gaga, Madonna, RuPaul, and keep their obvious stage names. 

Sister Roma of the San Francisco chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is presently one of the more high-profile dissenters to the policy. When Roma, who now has to go by Michael Williams in order for his Facebook account to remain active, was told to create a Fan page he responded

I use this site to keep up with friends and simply don't want employers or crazy stalker people to log on and search me . I want my friends to find me...I detest the idea of having a fan page. I'm not fucking Britney Spears. I have friends, not fans.

Saying additionally:

Bottom Line: I've been Sister Roma for 27 years. Ask anyone what my name is, in or out of drag, and they will tell you it's Roma. #MyNameIsRoma

Which brings to the forefront something that Facebook may not be considering: safety. While no doubt some users adopt pseudonyms for the purposes of trolling or harassment, no small number adopt fake names to protect their privacy and safety, and when that privacy is broken it can lead to disastrous results as one particularly devastating incident on Google Plus revealed.

This mandatory outing could be especially destructive for LGBT youth who need the protection of anonymity to connect with friends and resources without subjecting themselves to the hatred of peers...or even their own family. Going to Sister Roma again, she posted a message she received from a friend when the name change went into effect:

Here is an example of the comments i have received regarding Facebook's legal name change policy:

"The name I was born with is the name of a victim, a lonely little boy who hated himself.

That is NOT who I am. 


Adding to all of the chaos and shady business, Roma went to reply to a message from Sister Unity and found that the entire thread had been censored, along with other conversations that had discussed Facebook's name change policy. 

Then there's the whole question of "How does Facebook enforce this?" Unlike Google Plus, users don't have to submit photographic proof of identity when they sign up, so it seems to be that enforcement his highly subjective and is going to target people with obvious stage names rather than people who are simply creating a fake profile with a real-sounding name. Enforcement is also very spotty; Roma and some Sisters have been forced to change their names, while other Sisters like Nancy Drew Blood and performers like Heklina have their drag names intact. 

A petition has been started to demand that Facebook allow performers of all types be allowed to use their stage names and is seeking 2,800 signatures. As of right now, Facebook hasn't commented any further on the issue.

Lebanese Police Use WhatsApp to Target Gay Men

Whatsapp-logoPolice in Lebanon have taken to using messaging app WhatsApp to target men they suspect of being gay.

Helem, a Lebanese LGBTQI organization, has released the following warning, which succinctly explains the situation:

Helem has learned that the Hobeich police station has been arresting individuals in Beirut and going through their WhatsApp contacts. They are summoning contacts from detainees based on their WhatsApp conversations to go down to the police station for questioning. If you receive a phone call DO NOT GO, call 71 916 146 and Helem representatives will instruct you on what to do. DO NOT answer unknown numbers and save the Hobeich police station numbers on your phone so you can recognize them.

This is very important, please share with all of your friends and contacts either publicly or privately.

The news is the latest in a series of extreme behavior of Lebanese police toward gay men. In the wake of yesterday's news about the flaw in Grindr, it's also a stark reminder of how apps are changing our notion of privacy.

NSA Legally Harvesting Facebook And Gmail Data From Offshore Data Centers

Obama NSA
It's a secret to nobody that the NSA invades the privacy of Americans daily, but what's astounding is how much they harvest and how few restrictions are placed on them. The Washington Post released an article on how the NSA takes advantage of offshore data centers to harvest from companies like Facebook and Google, who use those offshore centers to help distribute their traffic and data loads, and how these actions haven't been authorized by Congress...and don't need to be. 

The agency avoids the restrictions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by intercepting contact lists from access points “all over the world,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified program. “None of those are on U.S. territory.”

Because of the method employed, the agency is not legally required or technically able to restrict its intake to contact lists belonging to specified foreign intelligence targets, he said.

Should anyone be concerned that all of this questionably-obtained data would be misused, never fear: there are accountability measures in place.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said the privacy of Americans is protected, despite mass collection, because “we have checks and balances built into our tools.”

NSA analysts, he said, may not search within the contacts database or distribute information from it unless they can “make the case that something in there is a valid foreign intelligence target in and of itself.”

The Patriot Act provides a lot of the authority for the NSA to engage in these privacy invasions with little oversight or accountability. For their part, Google and Facebook did not opt in to this data collection.

“We have neither knowledge of nor participation in this mass collection of web-mail addresses or chat lists by the government,” said Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick.

Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth said that “we did not know and did not assist” in the NSA’s interception of contact lists.

The NSA is reaping some small measure of karmic retribution, however.

Spam has proven to be a significant problem for the NSA — clogging databases with information that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, “are SPAM from ‘fake’ addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.”

The NSA, Data Privacy, and Gay Rights


130606-NSA-headquarters-tight-730aYou don't have to be a libertarian to get angry at the jaw-dropping revelations that the American intelligence apparatus has been mining data from various U.S. Internet companies. Many of us are aware that private and public entities know quite a bit about us; data mining, after all, is how the Google banner, Amazon book recommendations, and Facebook sidebar ads work. But few -- outside those of us who study digital privacy -- realized the scope of the NSA's reach. 

The government's intelligence gathering program -- called PRISM -- is ostensibly trying to achieve the worthy goal of preventing terror attacks. But the Kafka-esque bureaucracy it's creating could turn dangerous in the wrong hands. We've seen it before, during red scares that targeted Jews, blacks, gays, intellectuals, and other liberals; so let's not fall into the abyss of complacency by passing off the NSA's behavior as just something that makes us feel safer.

These kinds of privacy invasions have a less direct relationship to the gay community than raids of gay bars or anti-gay employment discrimination or bans on the freedom to marry. But even if it is true that the government only targeted foreigners abroad and did not discriminate on whose data it was gathering, the sweeping nature of NSA data gathering and this troubling example of the lag between our technology and our privacy protections should especially worry traditionally victimized groups.

Privacy law and the gay community have a long history. The explicit elucidation of a constitutional right to sexual privacy in the 1960s helped give us important precedents like the right to access contraception, the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, and the right to engage in private, consensual sex with someone of the same sex without being thrown in jail. Yet, over the years, our privacy has been invaded to stop the dissemination of gay-related political or cultural speech through the mail, to force us to disclose our memberships in community organizations that advanced gay rights, and to fire us from our jobs when our personal sexual orientation becomes known. 

Privacy is essential for the full realization of gay rights. Why? It's not because we need to hide who we are or hide our sexual conduct.

Let's discuss AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "The NSA, Data Privacy, and Gay Rights" »

What Does Your Phone Company Have On You? - VIDEO


What does your phone company have on you? Malte Spitz wanted to find out and received 35,830 lines of code -- "a detailed, nearly minute-by-minute account of half a year of his life."

Watch his TED Talk on self-determination in the digital age, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "What Does Your Phone Company Have On You? - VIDEO" »


Towleroad - Blogged