If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, chances are you’ve been asked the same questions over and over. Did someone or something make you gay? What does transgender even mean? Why do there have to be so many pronouns?
It’s exhausting, especially because most people’s knowledge of the LGBTQ community is limited to what they learned on the playground and a viral clip of Ben Shapiro. No wonder the newish allyship guides have encouraged people to Google their questions about the LGBTQ community, instead of relying on the marginalized to do the work of explaining.
It’s a reasonable request. If only Google and the platforms were up to the task.
When Bustle interviewed 19 members of the LGBTQ community last year about how allies can improve, participants came up with similar answers: “A big one was not relying on LGBTQA+ people to educate you on the issues when Google is a thing — and it’s free. Be conscientious of the emotional labor that goes into constantly explaining things to and do your own research.”
DIY research is a great idea, but the problem is, Google isn’t always the best teacher. As the 2016 election (and its aftermath) have taught us, searching out good sources is a skill, one that largely comes with education. Too often, even well-intentioned readers aren’t capable of separating good news sites from bad ones, or Russian bots from real people.
Take a look at what happens when you Google common questions about the LGBTQ community. This is the very first Google search result from “What does the rainbow mean?” It comes from DesiringGod.org:
I Googled “Can you cure homosexuality?” and this was the seventh result I found, from the famously anti-LGBTQ organization, Focus on the Family:
The first result for the question: “Why is my kid gay?”is also from Focus on the Family.
Imagine what happens after an uninformed person Googles “transgendered” (not really a word, but used by people unfamiliar with/antagonistic to the community) and “predators.”
Then there are the fourth and fifth results after I search “What is the gender binary?” on YouTube … of course Ben Shapiro had something [wildly incorrect] to say.
The problem is pervasive, but the explanation is simple: Search engines aren’t designed to be culturally sensitive. They share and incidentally prioritize plenty of malicious content. Google the company might consider itself an ally to the trans and queer community, but Google the search engine is not.
“One component of the algorithm looks at the number of links to a webpage to determine how high a website appears in a search, and this puts LGBTQ advocacy organizations and community groups at a disadvantage, as sensationalized or malicious content will often have a larger audience,” Chris Brown, Digital Director at GLAAD, told Mashable. “Online spaces have always been places where LGBTQ people are able to make connections and build community … Unfortunately, oftentimes we find this positive content flagged for removal, while malicious content is able to proliferate algorithmically with limited checks and balances.”
People are emotionally complex. So are their questions. It can be a challenge for search engines to provide them with the nuanced answers they deserve, Oliver Haimson, a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, explains:
“The problem here is that Google’s goal is to provide information that best matches a text query, and that goal may be at odds with the complexities that arise when people have questions about the LGBTQ people in their lives. Google’s algorithms tend to promote content that is linked to and clicked on a lot, but otherwise do not always do a great job of distinguishing between helpful advice and harmful/inaccurate advice. This type of algorithmically curated search result may not be a good stand-in for advice for a distressed parent who is just learning that their child is gay or trans.”
Consider a slightly better scenario: A straight or cis person, seeking answers about the trans and queer community, comes across a site that is actually curated by *gasp* the trans and queer community. Even then, not all of these sites are explainers, and no single one is representative of a larger community. This kind of searching is a risk to the LGBTQ community most of all. Not everyone who posts about their gender identity wants the people in their personal life (or strangers seeking advice on the internet) to view it.
In an ideal world, the algorithms themselves would improve.
“One of my main concerns would be straight and/or cis people coming across content that was not meant for them, possibly even by people in their own networks,” Raisman says. “For example, if a cis ally went digging too deep, she may uncover a friend or family member’s trans or non-binary identity that that person was not yet ready to disclose to her … LGBTQ people may feel comfortable sharing more personal information within these communities and online spaces that they think are not going to be accessed by outsiders. When outsiders access these communities, it breaks that trust.”
Cultural education isn’t easy, no matter the venue. People who are curious about the LGBTQ community should be given the opportunity to learn about the community without resorting to misinformed or malicious actors on the internet. And people who are tired of answering the same three questions about their gender identity and sexual orientation shouldn’t have to answer them.
In an ideal world, the algorithms themselves would improve.
“Any possible solution to bias in machine learning will require community involvement, and a seat at the table for LGBTQ people and experts when product decisions are being made,” Brown says.
In a less-than-ideal world (i.e the one we currently live in), other solutions will have to do. Here’s what Raisman recommends:
“A better scenario would be if there were an online community of allies that LGBTQ people could refer their friends and family members to — that way, humans could learn from each other in safe online spaces.”
This shouldn’t be hard. Safe online spaces, good information, and people learning from each other: it’s a whole lot better than a Google search. Imagine that.