September 09, 2010, 7:52 AM — Josh Moore lives in Fort Gay, West Virginia, a town of about 800 people. He listed his location in his Xbox Live profile, and for doing so was accused of violating the Xbox Live Code of Conduct. His account was suspended and the word 'Gay' was removed from his profile. When Moore contacted Xbox Live customer support to sort out what was clearly a misunderstanding, he was rebuffed, then threatened with a permanent ban to his (paid for) account if he dared put the name of his town back into his profile. Moore suggested the Microsoft employee he was speaking to could google his zip code for proof that Fort Gay was the name of a town, but he was told nothing could be done.
According to the CBS News post on the story, Moore went as far as enlisting the mayor of Fort Gay on his behalf, but the mayor had no more luck than he did:
Mayor David Thompson also tried to intervene, but with little success. He told television station WSAZ, which first reported the dispute, that he was informed the city's name didn't matter. The word "gay," he was told, was inappropriate in any context.
"It was so inappropriate for them, they wouldn't even say the word," Thompson told the AP Wednesday. "They said, 'that word.' It's beyond me. That's the name of our town! It's appalling. It's a slap in our face."
Eventually Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse, director of policy and enforcement for Xbox Live, stepped in and got the suspension lifted, and said he would apologize to Mr. Moore. Fair enough, I guess. But I do wonder how Moore would've gotten this overturned if he hadn't had a television news station reporting the story.
And if this all is sounding familiar, it's for a good reason. Back in 2009 Xbox Live was in a similar position after it suspended a lesbian gamer for revealing her sexual orientation. In that case, too, Microsoft eventually issued an apology and Toulouse had some meetings with members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and eventually sat on a panel on Homophobia and Virtual Communities. Changes were made to LIVE Code of Conduct to prevent further, similar incidents.
Clearly these changes weren't enough and it sounds to me like Xbox Live Support employees need some re-training (and according to an AP Wire post, training has been updated). Josh Moore didn't use the word 'gay' in any kind of a sexual context, but even if he had, the Code of Conduct clearly states:
You may use the following terms to express your relationship orientation in your profile or Gamertag:
Compare that to Mayor Thompson's statement that he was told the word 'gay' was inappropriate in any context. (As a side note, 'relationship orientation' is a really unusual term, and I'm not sure transgender has anything to do with relationships.)
Toulouse defended the actions of his employee, saying "complaints come to agents with no contextual information" and that they simply examine the language and determine whether or not it violates the Code of Conduct. Maybe these people need to be empowered to use some amount of judgement, or at least be able to kick issues upstairs to a higher level for review. If the employee had spent 10 seconds looking up Moore's zip code on Google everything could've been set to rights immediately. At least, it could have if the employee was acting according to the posted Code of Conduct.
I'm still trying to figure out how the phrase "Fort Gay, WV" can be seen as a sexual pejorative. I suggest that Xbox Live needs to keep working on its handling of sexual orientation statements on Xbox Live. I do believe Toulouse and his team have noble goals of trying to provide a service free of hate speech. It just sounds like doing so is going to be a constantly evolving process that includes monitoring employee responses, and not as simple as just making a change to the Code of Conduct and assuming all is well.