What’s Really Going On With Gay Tags and Tumblr Censorship — And Why You Should Care

Feature Image via Buzzfeed

A few days ago, Tumblr users started going crazy as they realized the site had begun hiding from searches blogs and tags flagged as NSFW or “adult.” Included in those flags? Tags like “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and other words that could be, depending on your audience and intention, harmless posts about a local GSA meeting or hardcore porn. Although Tumblr’s settings page allows users to opt out of hiding NSFW posts in searches, it seems blogs that have been labeled NSFW (with or without their consent) have not been appearing in searches at all, basically blocking them from gaining new followers through anything but reblogs and word-of-mouth. In addition, many noticed that a whole host of vaguely “adult” tags, including those listed above, are now unsearchable on some mobile apps, including Tumblr for iPhone.

The outcry was enough to get the attention of Tumblr CEO David Karp, who addressed the situation this morning in a post on the company’s staff blog. From Karp’s post, it seems that things aren’t as bad as some people feared. Apparently, the disappearance of blogs tagged as NSFW from Tumblr’s internal search was a bug and has been fixed. The disabling of certain tag searches on mobile apps is not a bug, but a supposed temporary fix until they find a way to keep porn from showing up on services that have their own rules prohibiting that. (Thanks, Apple!) Finally, the confusing new “adult” distinction users were seeing as an opt-in label in their settings has been removed, meaning blogs can only be marked as “NSFW” and blocked only from internal searches in “Safe Mode.” According to Karp, NSFW blogs will still appear in third-party search engines.

"Lesbians can be very dangerous. It's the testosterone." via Tumblr

“Lesbians can be very dangerous. It’s the testosterone.”
via Tumblr

That said, it’s become increasingly clear that Tumblr, particularly since its acquisition by Yahoo! earlier this year, is concerned about its use for posting adult content. It’s not just the “spammy commercial sites” Karp names in his post that are at risk, but any blog that wants to post things better suited to the 18+ crowd. And while the filtering and labeling of adult content is important for all users — whether they want to find that content or avoid it — the situation is particularly tricky for queer bloggers, for whom tags like “gay” are often totally appropriate and SFW. Even more unsettling is the ability of Tumblr staff to label a blog NSFW without any notification, meaning someone could be labeled NSFW and blocked from searches with no warning and no way guaranteed way to reverse the decision.

To be fair, many posts containing porn are labeled with “lesbian,” etc., and it can be frustrating trying to use those tags for non-porn purposes. If Tumblr wants to have an iOS app, it has to play by Apple’s rules, and removing tags like “lesbian” and “gay” is the quickest route to safety. But striking the entire group has some pretty hefty side effects, ones Karp barely glossed over in his memo.

“Queers spend a lot of their life attempting to be seen as more than just a sexual preference, as fully formed people who aren’t a kink or a fetish, so the fact that we were a consideration while dealing with buzzwords is offensive,” says Bo Abeille, who runs Pussy les Queer, a blog featuring “explicit, fetishistic, and sexual images that [Abeille and her girlfriend, Tumblr user suicideblonde] enjoy.”

There is no part of this logo that is not something I would want to find on Tumblr.  via Pussy les Queer

There is no part of this logo that is not something I would want to find on Tumblr.
banner by Molly Crabapple

Pussy les Queer is a type of blog uniquely threatened by this new crackdown on Tumblr content. While it includes plenty of adult material, the purpose is not to provide a porn cache but to highlight the work of artists who deal in explicit themes. Run by one of the more popular lesbian couples on Tumblr — their personal blogs, bohemea and suicideblonde, were formerly featured in the site’s LGBTQ directory page — it’s an extension of two major voices of the site’s lesbian community. Abeille, whose personal blog was deleted last month over copyright complaints, is working on moving Pussy les Queer to another platform, particularly after the most recent round of censorship frustrations. She has already started a new off-Tumblr site, Les Beehive, but says she’s disappointed that she has to leave:

“In my case, I was a promoter, someone whose Tumblr was mostly dedicated to promoting artists, and also to turning people on to film, media, culture, etc, and isn’t that a kind of blog that Tumblr would want as well? Don’t they also want user loyalty? Shouldn’t I have been considered an important part of their community? But I’m not, and the LGBTQ users aren’t, and the NSFW artists aren’t.”

Surely other popular queer Tumblrs are considering leaving the site, and for people like me, for whom Tumblr has been an important tool of self-discovery and socializing with other LGBTQ people, that loss will be sorely felt.

Those of us who are left have been asked to use the moderated “LGBTQ,” which could force those who don’t like or use that label to accept it as the only way their posts will get exposure. It cripples any subset of the acronym, making it that much harder for queer communities to break down the stereotypes that made “lesbian” synonymous with “hardcore girl-on-girl” in the first place.

Seeing as Tumblr is known particularly for its ability to foster strong communities, it seems counterintuitive to disable some of the most important tools for growing those communities. And with all the lip service queers give to Tumblr, one would think we might get some sort of advanced notice that our tags would be taken away. Instead, we’ve been left to ask questions in the aftermath, meaning many tempers have flared and conclusions been jumped to before Tumblr took the time to tell us what was happening.

Things like the LGBTQ spotlight page, which is run by Tumblr staff, and the similarly moderated #LGBTQ will remain on the site.  via Tumblr spotlight

Things like the LGBTQ spotlight page, which is run by Tumblr staff, and the similarly moderated #LGBTQ will remain on the site.
via Tumblr spotlight

There’s no reason that Tumblr can’t get its shit together quickly on this one. The possible solutions to this problem are basically endless, and a quick scroll through the “tumblr censorship” tag on the site will show dozens of workable suggestions from users.

“Wouldn’t it be great if Tumblr users could flag their content themselves?” Abeille asks — and that’s precisely the point. Does Tumblr not trust its users, who frequently dedicate themselves to strengthening communities for everything from fandoms to social justice, to apply that same dedication to flagging content? Can we not be counted on to improve the site we value so much? And, most importantly, can we not count on Tumblr to value each of us in return?

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Kaitlyn is a recent college grad, nanny and journalist living in New York — although, truth be told, she spends most of her time on Tumblr. Talk to her about intersectionality, Battlestar Galactica, and bacon if you want to be best friends.

Kaitlyn has written 46 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    when this stuff started, i saw that i couldn’t uncheck my tumblr as a NSFW blog. after a while, though, i was able to uncheck it??? (i should probably check it back though)

    but anyhow, this new censorship thing still riles me. the thing with pussy les queer shouldn’t have happened; they might as well shut down the entirety of tumblr. >:|

  2. Thumb up 6

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    Exactly. I have a good amount of tumblr lesbians that I follow. But when I first made a tumblr, I needed some way to find just lesbians. Girls who like girls. I feel like there needs to a unified way of separating the group because LGBT is so large. I’m also a feminist, so mostly I can’t really identify with gay men.

    Are we going to have to start using dyke?

    A lot of my previous posts are primarily tagged lesbian. I have recently started using lgbt.

    Are we going to have to do one of those posts like, “ladies, like this if you like girls so we can find each other” type of things?

    • Thumb up 5

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      I agree, LGBT is usually all about GGGG and I don’t have the patience to scroll trough tons of pages about gay man things, even more pages from straight fan girls swooning over fictional gay characters, and the same love-is-love picture over and over again.

      Maybe you should try it with a noun? Lesbianism. Or is it too clinical?
      Right now the tag doesn’t seem too exiting but at least it’s free of porn.

      Or maybe with tags that are related to lesbian politics? Horny 12 year old boys will for sure not show up on these. And Yahoo doesn’t know anything about L-specific language, so they probably will not be blocked.

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        Yes, the G takes over and definitely that love is love picture.

        Sidenote: I’m annoyed that the horny young boys use it as their enjoyment, like even the most normal pic of a L couple kissing. I’m like we form RELATIONSHIPS, not just a random drunkfest of kissing girls and sex.

        Anyway, lesbianism works. Kinda long though.

        But looking into the history of the word, from the Island of Lesbos, I’m really curious as to what other words describe the same thing. In other languages I guess.

  3. Thumb up 3

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    i figured that since “lesbian” “bisexual” “gay” etc. were not showing up (i never thought “banned” because i actually know how databases work and how easily they break) but “homos” “bi” etc. were, it was a glitch or mistake. but, my question is, who even uses those tags to find people like ourselves? i’ve never been in the lesbian tag to find like-minded lesbians; it’s all gifs of women getting it on in the shower. likewise the gay tag is all dudes getting it on in the shower (i guess tumblr users are really big on shower sex).

    those tags have been nothing but porn for years. if fixing them breaks them for a little while, so be it; they weren’t of use to anyone anyway. (as of this comment, the first two pages in the lesbian tag are unsourced gifs of women kissing in movies and gifs of hardcore porn. this is not useful for a lesbian community and i can go elsewhere to get off.)

    • Thumb up 1

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      Yes, I do use tags to connect with people like myself. And while “bisexual” is all porn, “bisexuality” and “bi tumblr” are magical and full of amazing people and resources :D

      “bi tumblr” still works… to whom it concerns…

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        i’m not saying the resources aren’t there. but when they’re lost in a sea of hardcore porn, they’re useless. kudos to the bisexuality tag for being siftable, but the lesbian tag is worthless for resources or information

    • Thumb up 4

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      Regarding your first sentence – I don’t want to sound like a cray-cray conspiracy theorist or anything, but it’s a least the third time in a couple of years that SFW queer content found itself banned or blocked in some way on a big website after a crackdown on porn (IIRC the other twos were Google and Amazon), and only after public outcry did these companies revealed that it was “just a bug” that they didn’t know about/didn’t notify their users about and conveniently managed to fix right at the time they released their apology.

      So yeah, I can believe that it happened one time, two times is suspicious but can be a coincidence, but three times – I don’t buy it anymore.

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        i don’t think you sound like a conspiracy theorist, but i think it’s important to realize how things are categorized. sexuality tags are naturally more prone to sexual, nsfw content, and as such they’re sometimes categorized as nsfw. it doesn’t make sense from an identity standpoint, but a lot of the filtering and categorization is automated and not intended to oppress or subdue anybody’s identity. ofc they would only notice after a lot of public outcry, because how else would they realize something is broken if the end user doesn’t alert them? they can’t monitor all the ways to access all the tags.

  4. Thumb up 5

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    This makes me so sad, and feeds into my worry that the whole internet is slowly becoming a desensitized shell of what it was/could be. But instead it’s becoming so censored that we can only find and see what Google and Apple and those with Puritan mentalities want us to be able to see. I miss the late 90’s when the internet felt like the wild wild west and everything was possible.

    Sorry for the tangent. I just needed to rant. I hate what the web is becoming.

  5. Thumb up 6

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    I feel like people who complain about this have never checked the lesbian tag because it was always flooded with porn, and not even porn featuring women exclusively, and I know so many people who’ve complained about this so many times – people who tried to go through the tag and flag individual posts – and it’s kind of like, WHERE were all the people who complain about not being able to build communities on queer tags then? did anyone even care until Tumblr started going after porn?

  6. Thumb up 1

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    My tumblr got flagged NSFW, probably because of a couple posts that I had personally tagged “nsfw.” But I e-mailed tumblr asking why my blog had been flagged and requesting that the flag be removed, and they unflagged it withing 24 hours.

    I feel like the tags on tumblr have always been pretty useless, especially broad tags like “lesbian” or “gay.” I mostly just use tumblr for fandom-related things, but I rarely go in even the fandom tags.

  7. Thumb up 0

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    The bisexual community on tumblr definitely uses tags to connect with each other. And while “bisexual” is really just a wall of porn gifs, “bisexuality” is and always have been almost porn free. Still both tags are blocked on mobile apps. And so is “depression” for example. So I don’t know, what the real deal is, but porn seems to be a straw argument.

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    I hope tumblr does clean the tags up. I mean, If I want to watch porn, that’s just a google click away; but if I want to connect with the Lesbian/Bi community, I don’t want to scroll through nsfw material, especially in a public space. With that said, tumblr could have gone about this in a much better fashion without alienating a large part of their audience.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    Hmm; I run a (very small) queer book blog on Tumblr. I started it on Tumblr mostly because I had gotten a personal Tumblr a few months before and it was really easy to set up a secondary blog. It’s also easy to share links and such, which is nice. But, in light of both this and of the fact that Tumblr is not necessarily the best place for long-text-posty blogs, I wonder if I should move it somewhere else?

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      I also have a tumblr, which I’m now considering moving, so if you come up with any good alternatives, I’d love to hear about them. I’ll be interested to see if they work on becoming more lgbtq friendly, or if they just find ways to slowly cut lgbtq-related content as time goes on.

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