The controversy around Facebook banning lesbians from using the word ‘dyke’

The social media company is facing difficulty figuring out the line between moderation and censorship.

NYC Dyke Bar Takeover’s page was removed after being up for about a year. It was later restored. CREDIT: NYC Dyke Bar Takeover on Facebook

Facebook is wrongfully banning the word “dyke,” according to a petition that has been circulating the internet. The petition, started by advocacy group Listening 2 Lesbians, links to an article by the same group with examples of posts that were taken down, encouraging others to share examples of censored posts, and to test Facebook’s system by flooding their timelines with the word.

“I LOVE DYKES!!!!”, read one allegedly banned post.

“You say dyke like it’s a bad thing,” read an image in another.

Facebook has a history of banning language deems offensive. But in this case, doing so raises the issue of censorship. Marginalized groups reclaim slurs all the time as an act of empowerment. Some women proudly call themselves “sluts” and “bitches” to celebrate sex-positivity or independence. Likewise, members of the Black community have reclaimed the n-word, a slur meant to degrade and dehumanize them during slavery and the Jim Crow era.

“As someone who has been routinely censored…I can testify how devastating and dehumanizing it feels.”

In a New York Times op-ed entitled “In Defense of a Loaded Word,” Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the n-word “the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.”

When a word is used by an oppressed group instead of by an oppressor, it becomes a symbol of defiance. It loses power. To be a woman and call yourself a slut is to affirm that that “sluttiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” Lesbians calling themselves dykes does the same thing: loving women isn’t something to be ashamed of.

That’s what makes a blanket censorship of the word problematic.

Facebook’s policy prevents representatives from commenting on individual posts or pages. But a Facebook spokesperson told ThinkProgress the company was aware of the petition and that some positive posts or pages containing the word “dyke” were removed. The representative, who spoke on background, also recognized that the moderation team makes mistakes when it comes to content removal.

Facebook’s Community Standards prohibit hate speech, and the word “dyke” is often used as a homophobic slur. GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, lists it as an example of defamatory language that should be avoided when possible to avoid giving it “credibility in the media.”

Content containing targeted slurs, including “dyke,” is automatically flagged for review, the Facebook representative told ThinkProgress. Once flagged by the algorithm, Facebook’s content moderation team looks at the context of the post to decide if it should be taken down. Posts like “dyke dyke dyke dyke dyke” that are made specifically to test Facebook’s system are more likely to get removed, because it’s harder for content moderators to determine context. But more innocuous posts like “I love dykes” or pages like “NYC Dyke Bar Takeover” — both of which were allegedly removed — shouldn’t be banned as readily, Facebook said.

CREDIT: Listening 2 Lesbians

Censorship of LGBTQ words and existence is nothing new. In the early 1930s, the strictly enforced Hays Code — also known as the Motion Picture Production Code — lumped in LGBTQ existence with “sex perversion” that should be avoided on screen. Moral watchdogs have challenged and still challenge books featuring LGBTQ characters, trying to remove them from schools and library shelves.

Because the term “dyke” takes on very different meanings when it’s used by a lesbian, companies like Facebook have difficulty distinguishing what’s truly offensive in order to avoid censorship. Facebook aims to protect LGBTQ people against hate speech. But the way the social network moderates content can still limit what LGBTQ people can and can’t say and how they express their identities — even if that wasn’t the company’s intention.

In an open letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, queer photographer Slava Mogutin wrote that websites enforce their community guidelines in ways that denounce sex and sexual expression. “Clearly, the Censorship Monster has never been loved, studied art history or human anatomy. However, it remains strong in its rigid conviction that it has the right to brutally police our community,” he wrote in the Huffington Post.

He continued:

As someone who has been routinely censored over the course of my 25-year career first as a poet and journalist in Moscow, then as a photographer and multimedia artist in New York, I can testify how devastating and dehumanizing it feels to be censored by an anonymous, non-creative and, in most recent cases, non-human entity.

Lesbians have been using “ dyke” positively, most likely as long as others have used the term pejoratively. There are Dyke Marches, Dykes On Bikes, and Alison Bechdel’s iconic comic “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

In her 1979 essay, In America They Call Us Dykes, J.R. Roberts wrote how the word evoked a sense of pride:

“To me, ‘dyke’ is positive; it means a strong, independent Lesbian who can take care of herself. As I continued with the movement, dyke took on even stronger political implications than “activist.” It signified woman-identified culture, identity, pride and strength — women, alone and together, who live conscious and deliberately autonomous lives, no longer seeking definitions or approvals according to male values.”

The controversy around “dyke” is bigger than Facebook and the lesbian community. The line between hate speech and self-expression is hard to walk, especially on social media. And it will take time for companies to get it right.

Two years ago, Facebook-owned Instagram banned users from using the word “curvy,” leading their users to protest not being allowed to use body-positive hashtags. Instagram has also come under fire for censoring nipples and period blood. This year, both Tumblr and YouTube have had issues with content filters that blocked LGBTQ content and could not be turned off for minors. Both websites have since adjusted their algorithms.

Content moderation is not an easy task. The best thing sites can do when issues like this come up is to apologize and attempt to fix them.

As for the petition circulating on Facebook, things get a little murky. Listening 2 Lesbians, which started the petition, is not inclusive of trans women and repeatedly suggests in the article linked in the petition that they don’t consider trans lesbians to be “real” lesbians. It’s possible some of the content they referenced may have been removed from Facebook for being transmisogynistic, or prejudiced against transgender women, rather than just for containing the word “dyke.”

Still, Listening 2 Lesbians’ petition highlighted a legitimate problem. Lesbians aren’t likely to stop using “dyke” to describe themselves anytime soon. The same goes for members of any marginalized group who reclaim slurs. Facebook told ThinkProgress it plans to hire more subject matter experts to help with the content moderation process, which is a step in the right direction. But until Facebook fixes its algorithm, we’ll still be left with an imperfect mechanism that inadvertently silences the community it’s trying to protect.