On Sunday morning I noticed that an acquaintance of mine had changed his relationship status on Facebook.
“Taylor is now in a domestic partnership,” my newsfeed announced. But the status change wasn’t actually the result of his finding a new beau. It’s just that last Thursday, Facebook finally let him recognize what his partnership when the company added two new types of couples to its drop-down relationship status menu: “in a domestic partnership” and “in a civil union.”
The change comes as a result of consultation with Facebook’s “Network of Support,” an anti-bullying advisory board that includes several LGBTQ organizations. It seems they’ve recently clued in Mark Zuckerberg and Co. to a novel fact about the romantic partnerships of Facebook users: Not everyone has the legal right to get married, but that doesn’t mean they’re just “in a relationship” either.
The new relationship statuses join old standbys like married, “in an open relationship,” widowed, separated, and divorced. All are designed to make the social network more welcoming. "This has been a highly requested feature from users," said Andrew Noyes, the site’s manager of public policy communications. “We want to provide options for people to genuinely and authentically reflect their relationships on Facebook.”
That kind of inclusivity is never a bad thing, and for people like my friend who already characterize their relationships with one of the new categories, it’s certainly a welcome change to finally see their relationships reflected back on that drop-down menu. Plus, having all those different categories has the unintended side benefit of providing a constant, nagging reminder that there is something fundamentally different about the legal status of most gay couples in the United States.
But I have to wonder how many people will actually use the new feature. A senior at Cornell University who asked to remain anonymous, told me that calling her same-sex relationship a marriage on Facebook would actually be a political statement in and of itself, a reminder not only of her commitment to her partner but also as a protest against those who don’t see their relationship as deserving of the marriage moniker.
Sure, she could call a spade a spade (or in her case, call a domestic partnership a domestic partnership) just to make the point that it is, in fact, something legally different than marriage, but for her it’s not worth it.
“For me at least, wanting other people to know that I considered my relationship a 'marriage' would take precedence over wanting people to remember that I don't have full rights,” she says.
When it comes down to it, Facebook’s changes do more to reveal the problem of marriage inequality than it does to solve it. It’s all well and good if you can characterize your relationship as you see fit on a social network, but when you exit that browser window, you’re still living in a country and a world that treats people vastly differently based on the gender of the people they fall in love with.
So good for Facebook, I suppose, I just wish it could have been, say, the U.S. government instead.