San Francisco's Drag Queens Want Facebook Booted From Pride Over "Real Names" Policy

If Facebook can't handle fabulous, it definitely shouldn't be at Pride.
Publish date:
May 8, 2015

Remember Facebook's "real names" policy, and how it blew up in the Silicon Valley company's face last fall when drag queens took to the Internet in mass protest? While it might have faded from the media, it's still a huge problem, and the drag community is tackling it from a new angle: They're trying to get Facebook kicked out of Pride.

Since the site's inception, it's been big on "real names." Facebook started as a network for college students only, eventually expanding to lesser beings, and along the way, it insisted that forcing users to use their legal names created a safer environment, unlike the rest of that big, bad, scary Internet. According to the most recent iteration of the company's names policy:

Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

It sounds noble. The vague "authentic identities" wording, however, is a direct response to the flareup over real names and identities that socked the site's PR right in the kidneys last year.

The issue started when numerous drag queens were locked out of their accounts on the grounds that their names weren't "real." Drag performers were outraged, taking to the Internet to demand justice — and a number had large followings, including other drag performers and members of the LGBQT community, to back them up. The result was an explosive and critical conversation about identity and culture, one that raised awareness across the Internet on the subject of "real names" and authenticity. If someone's well-known publicly by a given name that's not on her government identification, which name is "real"?

As Mike Woolson, a drag queen and cartoonist, pointed out during the controversy, this was an issue that went much bigger than drag queens. Some users were on the site under pseudonyms to avoid stalkers, to keep private and work lives separate, or to insulate themselves from the risk of outing. People like queer teens reaching out for resources couldn't be on the site under their own names if they were concerned about retaliation, for example, while teachers couldn't enjoy Facebook and making connections with people if they were concerned about friend requests from students. Meanwhile, survivors of domestic violence were at risk as well — mimicking a similar controversy over Google Buzz, when blogger "Harriet Jacobs" was outed via the poorly-implemented service.

Shamefacedly, Facebook was forced to issue an apology, claiming the mass lockout had occurred as a result of a single bad actor who'd maliciously flagged drag accounts, and saying: "Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that's Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that's Lil Miss Hot Mess."

It looked, for a time, like a victory.

But then things got complicated, as Facebook went back to the drawing board to rethink their policy. The site was caught between a rock and a capitalist place, as it desperately needed user data, including legal names to appeal to advertisers, but it also needed a way to keep users from rioting, or, worse yet, fleeing to other social networking place. So it came up with the nice, soft, friendly-sounding "authentic names" policy.

Here's the problem, though: Should a user's name be challenged under the policy, she's required to submit appropriate documentation to back her name up. And that documentation appears almost identical to that required under the "real names" policy. The website requires government identification and/or pieces of mail, proof of membership in clubs and organizations, bank statements, and other physical evidence of a user's name — and that's generally a user's legal name.

Many people who use stable, well-known pseudonyms online or professionally don't have "acceptable" evidence to back the reputation of their names. They typically receive mail addressed to their legal names, for example. Pay stubs, green cards, bank statements, and other documents are all aimed at their legal names, which are required for things like establishing tax identification numbers and opening financial accounts. Users with pseudonyms can't provide this information, because it will only contain their legal names.

This includes people using pseudonymous identification that's backed by a large body of work and reputation — as for example with Jay Smooth, who was recently involved in a spat with Facebook over a violation of the "authentic names" policy. It's difficult to think of a name more authentic than a widely used, known, and respected pseudonym (like Salman Rushdie), but apparently Facebook disagreed. At least until he went public with the dispute and forced a quick reversal of his account suspension as Facebook quickly realized it had a public relations nightmare on its hands.

The incident highlighted the fact that no matter what Facebook claimed in October, the site was still dead set against people choosing names that reflected their real and authentic identities. In recent months, users haven't just encountered problems with using pseudonyms: Facebook is also flagging legal names, targeting the Native American community specifically. Those with names that don't adhere to Europeanized standards are finding themselves on the wrong side of the policy, even with government identification to support their Facebook identities. One user, Dana Lone Hill, is filing suit against Facebook in the face of their racist names policy.

Facebook claims that it doesn't require people to use their legal names, just the names they're known by in real life, but the list of acceptable IDs for verification suggests otherwise. Moreover, the assertion that the policy is in place to protect users is also highly suspect, as Lil Miss Hot Mess pointed out at Salon:

Sure, being able to create an account under an assumed name could theoretically make it easier for a user to stalk someone, send harassing messages, or impersonate another user. But those are themselves reportable offenses which should be met with serious consequences and specialized prevention tools, not a blanket policy that hurts millions of users and is only selectively enforced.

After the lessons of October, Facebook is still hell-bent on name policing. The same users who have been fighting the policy all along are struggling with keeping it in the public eye, as the Internet has a short attention span. Many people — other than those being locked out of their accounts over flagged names — aren't aware that the policy is still an issue and that the promised fix was nothing of the kind.

Which brings us to the radical and rather delightful proposal from San Francisco's drag community: If Facebook isn't interested in fixing its real name policy and protecting the LGBQT community, it definitely doesn't deserve a spot at an event designed to celebrate LGBQT culture and liberation, which means no more slot in the Pride parade. San Francisco's pride week is one of the biggest, most intense, and fabulous in the country, and Facebook isn't the only Silicon Valley heavyweight that shows up to represent. Moreover, the group are also calling for Facebook to get the boot from New York's pride events too.

For Facebook's LGBQT employees who've marched under the company banner in the past, it would be a disappointment, but that's kind of the point. Facebook isn't supportive of the community it's profiting from, no matter what kinds of benefits and company policies it has surrounding LGBQT employees — and it should be held accountable for it. After offering false promises nearly eight months ago, Facebook is facing another round in the ring.

Of course, Facebook always has the alternative of protecting and supporting its users no matter which names they choose to join and express themselves under, creating an environment safe for LGBQT users, survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and more. It's up to Facebook to make the next move here.

Photo credits: James Buck, Franco Bouly, Loz Pycock, Robert Scoble