Facebook, Queer Folks and What’s In a Real Name

Facebook has recently been enforcing their “real/legal names” policy, resulting in a disproportionate number of members of the LGBTQ community being forced to change the name displayed on their Facebook profile. This includes a significant number of drag performers and members of the drag community. Facebook policy around names:

Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

According to Facebook, a real name is the user’s legal name with some allowances for “real” variants. For example, I can use Sue Kerr in lieu of my legal name, Susan Kerr. But I cannot use my first and middle names as my “real name” – I have to include  my surname. I also can’t use a nickname in lieu of either name unless it is a variant.

Drag performers fought back and successfully secured a  meeting with Facebook officials to discuss concerns around privacy, safety and identity. Facebook has temporarily restored deleted names for two weeks to allow individuals affected by the policy to have time to make an informed decision – Facebook wants performers to use Facebook pages, etc. At least this gives people a bit of breathing space to back up their data and photos as well as make their decision about what name to use.  But it isn’t a compromise by any stretch, just a time-limited accommodation. Of course there are “behind the scenes” conversations taking place.

Activists meeting with Facebook. Photo: Sister Roma
Activists meeting with Facebook. Photo: Sister Roma

The recent enforcement is allegedly tied to an excessive amount of reports of the accounts involved. That’s troubling, but the truth is that when you don’t comply with the Terms of Service and you happen to get reported for any reason, your entire account is scrutinized. I’ve written in the past about the ridiculous paths the whole “I know who reported me” mentality can take us. Who reported you isn’t as important as the policy itself – how Facebook views our names in relationship to our identities.

For gender nonconforming people, identity is not necessarily reflected in their legal name. Their legal name is not necessarily their “real” names, nor is their assigned at birth identity their “real identity.” Facebook captures this sensibility very well with the array of gender identity options it offers users, both to describe themselves and their family relationships.

There are many reasons a person may use a different name than their legal name. For those who are transgender or genderqueer, their chosen name is their real name. For performance artists whose drag identity is part of who they are, not just a “gig.” For those who do not have the financial means to pursue a legal name change. For youth and adults escaping abuse and violence. For those who want a clear boundary for their professional lives – educators, police officers, and others who work with youth and might want a measure of privacy. I met someone on Twitter yesterday who has been using his Hebrew name for years, but was forced to change it. There are people who have one legal name, not a first name and a surname. There are certainly people whose names are much longer than allowed for by the existing Facebook field and there are legal names that are 3 or 4 names.

According to a 2013 study from Pew Research, LGBT adults are very engaged in social media – more than 80% of adults are online compared with 58% of the general public. But less than 50% of LGBT adult users are “out” online. That’s a stark contrast. There are many things to take away – it is fair for me to assume that some people won’t follow me on Twitter because my handle implies LGBT @PghLesbian24. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t reading my tweets. The same is true with my Facebook page for this blog – I won’t get into the analytics discussion, but I think it is important for LGBTQ organizations to know how to reach people outside of social media (or inside it.) But I don’t think of my page as a substitute for my personal identity on Facebook. Or my personal relationships. Or disconnected and separate from my actual identity.

But I have the luxury of using my legal name as my  real name so I can have a timeline and page. I also get a chance to figure out the intersection of that on my own and without interference.

In my opinion, there’s a workable solution. Facebook can require legal names from users, but permit the user to select what name is displayed. This gives Facebook the information that they want, either for legal reasons to hold people accountable or to collect data for marketing purposes. It also gives users some control over their social media presence. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it does seem viable.

We need to find ways to create more safe spaces online for people in the LGBTQ community. The worst thing would be to drive folks off Facebook which provides a lot of the engagement opportunities lacking in real life. The same is true for survivors of violence and others who make choices in what name to use. Even if you believe that drag performers are artists who should follow the same rules as Lady Gaga and corporate America, you can probably see that among their friends – their friends, not simply fans – are very real LGBTQ people who are part of the more than 50% of us who are not able to be out online.

This policy doesn’t just hurt the performers or the individuals, it hurts our entire community.

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