Civil Unions Come to Facebook: Is It a Gain for Gay Rights?

Does the social network's addition of two relationship status options represent meaningful change?

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Until this week, Facebook users in a civil union or domestic partnership faced a conundrum when filling out their profile's relationship status: none of the options--single, in a relationship, engaged, married, it's complicated, in an open relationship, widowed, separated, and divorced--entirely applied to them. So, Facebook has added "in a civil union" and "in a domestic partnership" to its relationship status options after consulting with Facebook's Network of Support, which includes gay rights groups. Here's how people are taking the news:

  • Bracing for a Backlash Molly McHugh at Digital Trends predicts that there will be "outraged traditionalists who don't approve of these relationships anywhere, including on Facebook" but adds that Facebook's recognition could also "spur communication and acceptance."
  • Why Is the Change Only in Select Countries? "Before we rush to name Facebook a vanguard of social change," ZDNet's Daniel Kennedy says, we should recognize that the social networking site is only rolling out the new status options in the U.S., Canada, France, the U.K., and Australia. The list doesn't fully correspond with the list of countries that have legally recognized non-traditional relationships, he points out, and "the 15,000,000 Facebook users in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where homosexuality is largely a crime with penalties ranging from jail time to the death penalty, will not be seeing this option."
  • A Milestone, But the Goal's Still Gay Marriage The Human Rights Campaign's Michael Cole-Schwartz says the move is one more sign of Facebook's inclusiveness but adds that all websites must continue to combat cyberbullying. Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, hopes the change will remind people that couples in civil unions and domestic partnerships "still lack the same legal recognition and protections associated with marriage." In other words, Barrios hopes these couples will one day choose "Married" from Facebook's relationship status menu.
  • What About the Polyamorous? All Facebook's Jackie Cohen notes that there are other problems with Facebook's relationship status. People in open relationships can only identify one person they're dating and, if you select "it's complicated," there's no way to describe the particulars of the complication. Beyond relationships, she adds, there's no place in the family members section for step-children and step-siblings. Mike Melanson at ReadWriteWeb, meanwhile, wonders how Facebook will handle gender definitions going forward: "Will it remain binary or will it open up to more possibilities?"
    This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.