Russia’s largest social media site, Vkontakte, will now allow users to show that they are in a same-sex relationship on their profile page, according to The Moscow Times. The feature was announced just days after the social network told a user that it had no plans to do such, Radio Free Europe reports. Following pressure from gay rights groups and a possible boycott of the site, Vkontakte has delivered a small victory to LGBT rights in Russia, in a year of setbacks.

The controversy began when a Vkontakte user, “Oleg” wrote to the network’s administrator, asking why he was unable to select, “I have a boyfriend” for his relationship status. The site responded stating that gay marriage is banned in Russia, but that he could change his sex online. Oleg’s story became an instant sensation, and the gay rights group the Rainbow Coalition charged that the decision was indicative of wider LGBT discrimination. The coalition warned that gay users – and their allies – might migrate to VK’s competitor Facebook, en masse. Nonetheless, Vkontakte spokesman Vladislav Tsyplushin held that Vkontakte did not intend to change this policy.

Screen capture of the new feature, courtesy VK.com

On 3 August Vkontatke reversed its decision in a blog post that announced the new feature; users could henceforth indicate that they are in a relationship with someone of the same sex. Later that week Tsyplushin announced on Twitter that VK, “…decided to meet users halfway.” While the site now recognizes same-sex relationships, it will not recognize same-sex marriages.

The brief row illustrates the challenges that tech companies navigating entrenched-in-the law-homophobia, and shifting social norms; Vkontakte, unlike Facebook, operates in the shadow of local “homosexual propaganda” laws, explained TheNextWeb. According to gay rights activist Nikolai Alexeyev, VK’s decision to allow same-sex relationships was made when the network took a look at its bottom line. LGBT users make up at least 4-5 percent of VK’s user base, according to the Moscow Times, not including all those who would potentially participate in a boycott.

Despite this victory, LGBT activists and internet users face significant hurdles and discrimination online. VK is under continual pressure from transgender activists and users for forcing users to identify as either male or female.

Following VK’s decision, a spokesperson Odnoklassikniki, Russia’s second largest social media site, told the Moscow Times that it would not allow users to display same-sex relationships.

Originally posted on NetProphet.

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