If you are lucky enough to live in a place where you can be open about your sexuality or gender identity, consider yourself very lucky. Unfortunately, for many people, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender continues to carry with it significant social stigma in many communities around the United States and the world.
It is easy to be reactionary and simply generalize that everyone should come out and then homophobia would no longer be an issue, but this is simply not something that everyone can afford to do, and for many it could be downright dangerous or deadly to do so. But even in places where coming out is not fraught with the immediate threat of physical danger, as more and more LGBT people reveal private information about their personal lives in social media, the real-life financial, social and economic implications can still be disastrous. The Wall Street Journal framed the argument this way: "Closeted gays and lesbians face particular challenges in controlling their images online, given that friends, family and enemies have the ability to expose them."
Take employment, for example. In 29 states it is perfectly legal to fire someone based merely on their sexual orientation, and in 34 states it's legal to fire someone based on their gender identity. In addition, an increasing number of employers are reviewing online profiles before making hiring decisions, and gay applicants are 40-percent less likely to be granted an interview than their heterosexual counterparts. As a result, the importance of online confidentiality and privacy is not merely a matter of convenience but carries with it significant financial and economic ramifications for those individuals whose sexual orientation or gender identities are revealed where protections are not offered. When people live in fear for their economic livelihood, it is disempowering because they worry that they will lose their jobs, homes, families and lives. Such fears have a multiplier effect and reverberate beyond those specific communities and weaken the LGBT civil rights movement in general. (It is one of the reasons that a comprehensive and inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] needs to be passed to guarantee protections so that LGBT workers will not lose their jobs.)
Even changes in policies and laws may not be enough. I recently attended an event held by OutServe-SLDN, the association of actively serving LGBT military personnel, to tackle where the organization is going next and the intersection of their mission and technology since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). It was very revealing to learn that many service members still feel the need to remain in hiding for fear of reprisal or the possibility of losing a significant job promotion even after the repeal.
Furthermore, the repeal of DADT did not include specific protections for transgender members of the military, who, as a result, need to continue to hide their identities, often having to create fake online identities as a means of protecting themselves from being fired.
Fear of job loss is not the only concern, of course. Online privacy, security and confidentiality remain an issue for others reasons: A teenager who searches online to learn more about the Trevor Project, the Born This Way Foundation or even how to combat anti-gay cyberbullying they may be experiencing might inadvertently reveal their identity to parents or peers who may be less than accepting. In fact, according to studies by UCLA Law School's Williams Institute, the LGBT population represents 3 to 4 percent of the overall U.S. population but a disproportionate 40 percent of the homeless youth population. The ramifications of online privacy, confidentiality and security can have a life-altering impact even at a young age.
Outside of the United States the issues surrounding online privacy, confidentiality and security can have even more drastic and severe ramifications. In places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran, where one can experience bodily harm or face death for being LGBT, searching for information about being LGBT can cost you your life.
It is for these reasons and others that the LGBT Technology Partnership has announced its newest collaboration with the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) to develop and release a new set of LGBT-specific cyber safety tips to help our communities stay safer online. The NCSA, in collaboration with the government, corporate, nonprofit and academic sectors, educates and empowers digital citizens to use the Internet securely and safely, protecting themselves and the technologies they use as well as the digital assets we all share. The collaborative effort includes working with the NCSA to create an LGBT cyber education toolkit with fact sheets, tips sheets and posters. In addition, in honor of Pride month in June, both organizations will hold a joint Twitter chat about LGBT cyber safety issues. More information about the NCSA/LGBT Technology Partnership's efforts is available here.
We look forward to the day when LGBT communities no longer face the need to hide their true identities either at home in the United States or abroad. We look forward to the day when we have reached true equality, when legal, legislative, cultural and societal equality pervades and no one's life is at stake because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But that time is not now. Until the time when a teenager can come out without being bullied or kicked out of their home, or a gay employee need not fear being exposed by co-workers during water cooler conversations, online privacy, confidentiality and security issues will remain a significant concern that requires the ongoing attention of technology businesses and policy makers alike.