Facebook, the home to over 50 gender identity options, has taken a bit of a bigoted turn this week by suspending the profiles of drag queens whose accounts are under their stage names. Artists are being forcefully logged out and left messages providing instructions on how to change their stage names to their legal names, in accordance with Facebook's "real names" policy.
What? According to that real name policy, "the name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, driver's license or student ID."
I just did a quick check of my own friends list and saw that every person who uses a false name still has an active account. None of those people happen to be drag queens, though. I mean, I literally have a friend whose account name is the equivalent of "Sunshine N Happiness"* and it's still accessible.
Obviously, this isn't going over very well. One queen, Sister Roma—shown on the left in the photo above, described what happened to her: "I was automatically logged out and told my account was suspended because it appears that I'm not using my real name," she told The Daily Dot. Roma, who has been using Facebook under her stage name since 2008, has now changed her profile to reflect her legal name, Michael Williams.
Facebook insists the name requirements are an attempt to make the Facebook community a safer space, but Sister Roma and other queens would disagree. In fact, the "sister" in Sister Roma comes from the fact that Roma is part of a community service LGBT organization called Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
It's hard to understand how a human rights activist and artist poses some sort of threat simply by using her stage name. It's especially hard to understand when Facebook has ignored their own rules plenty of times in the past, such as in May, when Daniel Rey Wolfe, a Marine veteran, documented his suicide on his profile. Much to the horror of family and friends who tried to intervene before it was too late, Facebook at first refused to remove the imagery after Wolfe's death. It took much wrangling from family, friends, and veterans groups before they finally did.
I, myself, have scrolled upon an auto-play video that showed a man committing suicide with a firearm. The video was anonymous, taken from some other source, and shared by one of those numerous profiles we all loathe whose sole goals are to be as viral as possible. I reported the video and was eventually sent an email that said it had been reviewed and found to not violate Facebook's community standards in regards to graphic content, which has a specific section on self harm.
Some have hypothesized that this may be an attempt by Facebook to better monetize the profiles of performers, forcing artists to adopt "fan page" type profile pages where stage names are allowed. This would in turn force performers to pay for sponsored posts if they want the same type of visibility on their friends' timelines that they previously enjoyed with their personal profile pages.
But, again, this doesn't seem to be the case. Sister Roma provided The Daily Dot with screen shots of what appear to be private Facebook chats between her and another Sister. The chat was censored, by Facebook, for containing spam. Let me say that again: private chat messages between two users were censored by Facebook. The portions of that chat that were censored? They were all in regards to the name change policy.
Another performer who reluctantly acquiesced to the name change, Honey LaBronx, described it by saying, "I don't know if non-drag performers can really understand how degrading it is. Seriously it's a step above feeling like a wet cat." It's more than just demoralizing, though, it's potentially dangerous. A Change.org petition started in the hopes of getting Facebook to reverse their position states that the policy change can put drag queens and others at a very real risk for harm:
Victims of abuse, trans people, queer people who are not able to be safely "out," and performers alike need to be able to socialize, connect, and build communities on social media safely. By forcing us to use our "real" names, it opens the door to harassment, abuse, and violence.
I don't know what Facebook's end game is going to be with this, or what their real motivations are with the enforcement of their name policy, but from where I stand, it looks like discrimination, plain and simple. Identity is a complicated issue already, even before one considers how a lack of autonomy in regards to identity can become a liability to one's personal safety. And for a company that has previously refused to remove images of beheadings, animal abuse, gender-based hate speech, and suicide, suddenly deciding that performers are dangerous is absurd.
Edit: It should be noted that Facebook's real name policy doesn't apply to "verified" celebrities who have more than 20,000 subscribers, according to this New York Times article from 2012. That verification process still demands those celebrities to use their legal names in the information section of their pages, as well as a photo from an official ID.
What Facebook is failing to understand, though, is that a drag identity is every bit as valid an identity for many queens as their legal names. The Change.org petition speaks to the importance of that identity. Allowing private individuals to keep names built from puns or inside jokes who are literally only known by such a name on Facebook while telling queens and other individuals on the trans spectrum that they aren't real enough, that the identities they have been known by, online and off, sometimes for decades, aren't legitimate is more than just offensive, it is discrimination. Full stop.
Edit 2: For any who wish to argue the position that using legal names somehow prevents or reduces online bullying, user surrogatekey has compiled several sources disproving such assumptions. Surrogatekey's comment can be found below or by clicking here.
*Due to doxxing concerns, I'm not using the exact words she chose, but that's the gist of the name she chose.
Top image courtesy Business Insider.