Tumblr bans #gay, #lesbian searches

Searching Tumblr's iPhone app for "gay" or "lesbian" returns this improbable-looking result. ((Screenshot) / July 24, 2013)

In the latest move by an Internet company to crack down on the inevitable proliferation of porn, blogging site Tumblr has banned its Apple iOS app users from searching the tags "gay," "lesbian" and "bisexual."

The reason the company gives, according to a post written by CEO David Karp on the site's staff blog, is that those tags "are still frequently returning adult content which our entire app was close to being banned for."

That's a clear finger-point to Apple, which made it clear in 2010 that "apps containing pornographic material" or "user generated content that is frequently pornographic" will get booted from their digital marketplace. As far as Tumblr is concerned, keeping users from freely browsing the #gay, #lesbian and #bisexual tags will bring them in line with Apple's rules.

Except Tumblr users still have the option to search such offensive terms as "fag," "faggot" and "bulldyke" despite Apple's ban on apps containing "references or commentary about a religious, cultural or ethnic group that are defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm." Other offensive racial and ethnic slurs, which I will not restate here, return the same result pictured in the screenshot above; the three gay slurs I just listed don't.

Plus, Tumblr bloggers can still find porn through searching "bi," as one Jezebel reader notes. Karp even points out that Tumblr-based porn is just one app away, since unfiltered search results are available through mobile browsers like Safari and Chrome. So clearly loopholes abound, and it's not unfeasible for new porn-heavy tags to spring up soon.

According to Forbes, 10 percent of Tumblr's blogs post adult content. And it's clear from a search on Tumblr's desktop site that plenty of sexually explicit material is posted using #gay, #lesbian and #bisexual.

Trouble is, plenty of content posted under those tags contributes to a productive discussion of LGBT issues. A desktop search of #gay turns up pornographic GIFs, but it also returns pictures of couples kissing, coming out stories, tales of anti-LGBT discrimination, plenty of shirtless men and a discussion about Macklemore's song "Same Love." (In the interest of full disclosure, I manage the Sun's Tumblr account and have twice posted photos from Baltimore Pride tagged with #gay.)

Karp is quick to add that Tumblr doesn't have an issue with content that is too steamy for the workplace, stating that "empowering your creative expression is the most important thing in the world to us." But Apple's app store has typically proven less forgiving.

Still, passing the buck to Apple doesn't adequately explain why Tumblr chose to simply ban searches of #gay, #lesbian and #bisexual rather than improve its filtering on mobile platforms. While Karp promises "more intelligent filtering" is on the way, desktop users already have the ability to enable a safe search mode. If Tumblr is committed to free speech -- as they should be, and I'm not advocating Tumblr prevent users from posting either hate-speech or pornography -- it could have made filtered search the default option on an iPhone.

But instead of making that filtering a priority, Tumblr opted to block searches based on three buzzwords that encompass far more than sex and porn. I'd bet it was the easiest solution, but it mistakenly associates three non-normative sexual orientations with a whole host of offensive content, a stigma the LGBT community has worked decades to shake off. At the moment, Karp and the site are encouraging users to use and search for #LGBTQ, but how long will it take before that tag gets co-opted by pornography as well?

More germane to Tumblr itself, this move also interferes with LGBT users' ability to form online networks where they can discuss pertinent issues with like-minded individuals -- and that sense of community is what draws bloggers to Tumblr in the first place.