Leave it to Facebook to squander the good will it had generated in the LGBT community, and piss off everybody—all to make some money.
Just a few months ago, Facebook earned kudos from both the gay establishment and grassroots trans, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming folk for expanding its range of pronouns and gender identifications.
But now, by suddenly and mysteriously enforcing its “real-name policy” against drag queens and others with chosen names, Facebook has blown it. Worse, given an opportunity to compromise at a brokered meeting Wednesday in San Francisco, Facebook instead doubled down and refused to budge.
There are differing accounts of why the policy, which requires users’ profiles to conform to their legal names, exists at all.
Facebook claims that it’s about safety. Requiring people to use their legal names ostensibly protects users from stalkers, jealous exes, and others who might want to hide behind a pseudonym. “We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with,” says the policy.
But this explanation doesn’t hold water. Those with chosen names—not just drag queens but anyone who has taken a name that doesn’t match their legal documentation—still have to provide a valid email address, and can easily be required to provide their legal names as well. Besides, if I masquerade as “John Smith” rather than “Sister Dionne Snorewick,” that’s just as obfuscating, and it doesn’t get caught by Facebook’s algorithm.
Facebook users should know by now to protect their information from prying eyes, and not accept friend requests from people they don’t know, whether their names are fabulous or not. And, wait a minute, don’t chosen names protect victims of stalking or abuse, at least as much as perpetrators?
More likely, this is about money. Facebook now admits that “performers” should establish pages, rather than profiles. There’s a significant difference. Pages can “promote posts” by paying Facebook. They can purchase a variety of tools to expand their audiences. They can buy ads. None of these are available to profiles.
I see this myself every day. I have a “Jay Michaelson” author page and a “Jay Michaelson” personal profile. Many people, though, don’t want to be my fan—they want to be my “friend,” whatever that means. As it stands now, I reach more people for free with my personal profile than I do with my revenue-generating author page.
That is bad for Facebook’s business. In my case, my personal and “performer” name are the same. But if Facebook can force drag performers to move from profiles to pages, they will make money.
Moreover, a post in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Facebook’s data-driven advertising model depends on accurate information about its users. If “Alaska Thunderfuck,” a RuPaul Season 5 finalist, claims to be a 100-year-old space alien, but is actually Justin Honard from Erie, Pennsylvania, that corrupts Facebook’s data set. (Honard uses his given name on his Facebook profile.)
The trouble is, this policy is both overbroad and weirdly discriminatory.
It’s overbroad in that it captures not just performers with stage names, but a whole host of individuals who choose, in their personal and professional lives, to use names other than their legal ones.
Just in my immediate friend circle, this includes the cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond (given name: Stanley), the underground performance artist Bizzy Barefoot (given name: Brian; “Barefoot” is actually for real), and the radical faerie organizer Sizzle Moon Song (whose given name I will not disclose here). “Justin Vivian,” “Bizzy,” and “Sizzle” aren’t stage names—they’re names. They’re what I call these people. These are their real names. A lot more real than what’s written on a driver’s license.
Not coincidentally, all three of these folks lie somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum. And that’s the second, more troubling problem with the Facebook policy. At the moment, at least, it is targeting queer people.
Facebook claims that they have no idea why this is happening, that individual profiles are only targeted when a user reports them. The insinuation is that some drag- or queer-hater out there is ratting on a bunch of queens.
This, too, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Really, someone just has it in for the drag queens? Not obvious fake-bro-names like Craven Morehead and Jock Strap (I am not making this up—Time magazine made a list), but real identities like Sister Soami (now demoted to “Fred Brungard”) and Little Miss Hot Mess?
I don’t buy it. In the age of RuPaul—who has apparently been silent about this controversy, and shouldn’t be—I think Facebook is trying to monetize drag, and coerce people with chosen names into becoming profit centers. These queens are just the low-hanging fruit. (No pun intended. Ish.)
This policy may be financially savvy, but it’s morally wrong.
Many people choose their names, for a lot of different reasons. Maybe they’re transitioning their genders but haven’t yet changed the paperwork. Maybe they have upstanding day jobs and don’t want their bosses to find out about their private lives. Maybe they don’t trust Facebook’s porous and ever-changing privacy standards. Maybe they have abusive exes. Maybe they have families ashamed of their existences. Maybe they’re in the closet.
All of these choices ought to be respected. And the fact that this policy is, for whatever reason, singling out queers for marginalization, dehumanization, and public exposure should make Facebook ashamed of itself. It’s bad enough that a drag queen can’t use her chosen name. Just wait until a closeted kid is outed to his parents.
Facebook is a corporation, so unless there’s a smoking gun that proves it’s targeting queers, there’s not much people can do except complain—or leave. Hopefully, advocates for LGBT people, victims of abuse, and all those who choose to self-define and self-identify can convince Facebook to do the right thing. If not, I hope the drag queens’ fierceness is unleashed for real—and we all head over to Google+.