Facebook Rebuffs Drag Queens on Name Policy

by Sean Piverger

Bay Area Reporter

Saturday September 20, 2014

San Francisco drag queens met with Facebook executives Wednesday but no changes were made to the social media company's policy on using real names.

The meeting came as a war of words has intensified over the social media service's policy on using real names instead of stage names on Facebook pages.

The policy not only affects performers but others who use stage names, like drag queens, who are up in arms because in recent days they were locked out of their accounts. In order for the users to gain access to their accounts, they must provide their real names for identification.

Facebook, the world's most popular social media service, has long had a policy of people using their legal names, unlike Twitter, where people can use whatever name they want.

By Monday, a protest scheduled for Facebook's Menlo Park campus had been postponed after gay San Francisco Supervisor David Campos arranged a meeting with company executives and drag queens Sister Roma, whose real name is Michael Williams, and Heklina, whose real name is Stefan Grygelko.

At a news conference at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, Campos said he, the drag queens, and others who met with Facebook staff were "hopeful we would be able to get" an acknowledgment from Facebook that its policy "was wrong and misguided," and that they would get the social site to lay out what steps would be taken to correct the situation.

"That, unfortunately, was not accomplished," Campos said, but "we are committed to continuing to work with Facebook."

A future meeting date has not been set. Asked about the possibility of a protest, Sister Roma didn't have a date to announce, but said, "We're always ready to go."

The Associated Press reported that Facebook restored the suspended accounts for two weeks so people can decide whether to provide their real names.

Heklina said they're "pressing" Facebook "to come up with another time to meet," and they also want to meet with people who actually have the power to change things at the company. She said today's meeting only included a public relations staffer and a content policy employee who joined the meeting via satellite.

Campos said, "After an hour of discussion, we have yet to hear from Facebook they agree the policy is wrong."

He and the others said they were advocating not just for drag queens, but also for transgender people, survivors of domestic violence, and others who don't feel safe using their legal names on the site.

Roma said the meeting was "not as exciting as I'd hoped it would be," but she assured others, "Your voices were heard."

Advocates said that during the hour-long meeting, they shared people's stories of how the policy has harmed them.

Campos, who's running against Board of Supervisors President David Chiu for the Assembly seat being vacated by gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), indicated he plans to keep spending time on this issue, which has drawn national media attention.

"We're not going away until this issue is resolved," he said.

Roma made similar remarks.

"We're not going to rest until this unfair, discriminatory policy is taken away from Facebook," she said.

"They're claiming they're trying to create a safe environment," but she and others have heard from people who have escaped abusive spouses and "the only outlet they have is through Facebook."

Heklina said she was "disappointed with the vagueness of the meeting," but "nothing is off the table," and "we have a community that's mobilized to protest."

She said, "I think I would" boycott Facebook, but after she was blocked from the site for a day, "I felt like I'd had a limb chopped off." She said safety is a concern for her. "I have crazy family members" who she doesn't want to be able to find her.

Heklina, the longtime hostess of the Trannyshack drag show said Facebook is "an incredibly important marketing tool" for artists, and if the company "really wanted to find out if I was genuine or not," staff there would just have to look at the numerous photos of her performing over the years that she's included on her page.

Little Miss Hot Mess, 30, who didn't want her legal name published, said "Facebook is one of the most significant public forums we have today," and it's "unfair to discriminate" against those who don't want to reveal their legal identities.

Facebook's policy that people use their legal names isn't new, but Heklina said it's become an issue in the past week because people's accounts have been reported and their accounts have been suspended.

"There is cyber-bullying going on," with at least one person "disproportionately" targeting drag queens, transgender people, and others.

Asked if she and the others know who's doing that, Roma said, "I wish I did."

She said Facebook staff "did admit maybe they need to reevaluate the way complaints are processed. Heklina said Facebook staffers also said, "there is an algorithm that goes along and detects" when people aren't using their legal names, and "somebody is reporting us, and they're whipping us out of existence."

"Clearly, there is selective enforcement going on," Campos said. However, he said, he is trying "to take Facebook at face value" and trust that the company is "trying to do the right thing."

Advocates said that LGBT employees at Facebook have been pushing their cause, and Roma said, "There are people on both sides of this issue within the company."

Roma, who's had a profile on the site since 2008, said she hasn't lost any data. "I downloaded my archive," she said, advising other users to do the same.

Sister Roma, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was forced to make changes when Facebook locked her out of her account.

"This issue is way bigger than a bunch of drag queens complaining because we can't use our stage names," Roma said in a news release. "This policy is discriminatory and potentially dangerous to a variety of Facebook users, including abused and battered women, bullied teens, political activists, sex workers, and especially members of the transgender community; all examples of people who use pseudonyms to ensure their safety and privacy."

In the same statement Campos said that Facebook agreed to meet with him and members of San Francisco's drag community to discuss the policy. That meeting was scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, after the print edition of the Bay Area Reporter went to press.

"I am glad that Facebook has accepted our invitation to engage in a meaningful public dialogue with the drag queens and members of the transgender community who have been affected by the profile name policy," said Campos.

Entertainer, actor, columnist, and activist BeBe Sweetbriar, whose real name is Kevin Junious, said in a phone interview that Facebook should respect the privacy of its users.

"[This] should not be any of their business," Sweetbriar said.

Facebook was created by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, first as a way for college students to connect and later for people to interact with friends, family members, and others. This includes sharing photos and messages with friends, family, and total strangers. And while Facebook has gained over a billion users worldwide, the social network has had its share of challenges. In the past Facebook has taken on the National Security Agency, privacy advocates, and Google.

The kerfuffle between Facebook and drag queens reached the pages of the Wall Street Journal, which noted that the name policy "has come under fire before, notably when it has deleted pages of dissident political activists because they used pseudonyms. Some activists say Facebook has put dissidents in danger by pushing them to reveal their identities."

Facebook is all about data collection, mainly for advertisers, and the Journal noted that "Maintaining the quality of that data is an ongoing struggle for Facebook, which says about 11.2 percent of its 1.32 billion user profiles actually represent alternate identities, misclassified accounts, or fake accounts used for spamming."

In an e-mail, Facebook spokesman Andrew Souvall said that the company's name policy has been around for a while and wants users to provide legal names in order to have "a safer, more open environment of accountability."

"If people want to use an alternative name on Facebook, they have several different options available to them, including providing an alias under their name on their profile, or creating a page specifically for that alternative persona," Souvall said. "As part of our overall standards, we ask that people who use Facebook provide their real name on their profile. We only generally review profile pages when a member of the Facebook community reports it to us. In these instances, the profiles would have been reported to us."

On Facebook's Safety Center Page users can protect themselves by blocking other users, unfriending someone, or reporting abuse. However, that along with the name policy is not effective, said Sweetbriar.

"That doesn't stop a spousal abuser from finding the abused, who may be trying to stay safe. Facebook says [that] the real name policy is for safety reasons, but real name use for many may be unsafe," said Sweetbriar in an e-mail. "The enforcement of a real name policy doesn't match their recent expansion of personal profile gender identifiers. I am sure Facebook is using some kind of matrix to search profiles to see if they fit their real name requirement. If I use a transgender female as a gender choice because I have been living as a female, but use my legal name as required by Facebook, which is male, the two don't match. Is that going to raise a red flag with Facebook?"

Facebook said it understands those issues.

"We recognize that a person's real identity is not necessarily the name that appears on a person's legal documents, and that is why we accept a broad variety of different forms that can be used to confirm that a person's profile name does reflect the name they use in everyday life," said Souvall.

In the wake of these changes a petition has been started by Seattle drag performer Olivia LaGarce to demand reform of Facebook's sweeping policy. That petition can be found at https://www.change.org/p/facebook-allow-performers-to-use-their-stage-names-on-their-facebook-accounts. As of this past Monday, the petition has received 15,000 signatures.

"By preventing us from accessing our accounts under our chosen names, this hinders our ability to make a living and develop our performance careers," wrote LaGarce.

Oakland resident Ava Ashley, who prefers to be called by her stage name rather than her real name, Alan Markert, said in an e-mail that Facebook must focus their attention on the bigger issues rather than enforcing this policy.

"Facebook should take a set and spend more time on trying to stop people's profile being hacked, being bullied, and anything and anyone that is out to hurt or harm someone," Ashley said. "My stage drag name means a lot to me. It's me. So I'm not the one with the problem, they are."

Facebook name and safety information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/help/112146705538576 and https://www.facebook.com/safety/tools/.

Seth Hemmelgarn contributed to this report.

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