by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Sometimes, as it has been said before, 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word. You can go a lifetime waiting for some people to say it. Others never do. But the LGBTQ and allied community, as well as users of the world's largest social network, Facebook, only had to wait for three weeks. On October 1, after a meeting with drag queens, Transgender people, and other members of the community and our allies, Facebook apologized for the policy.
In an attempt to offer a clarification, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox wrote, 'I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, Transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we've put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.'
'Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name,' Cox continued. '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.'
Cox said that part of what's been so difficult about this conversation is that Facebook supports people like Sister Roma and Lil Miss Hot Mess and 'so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook.'
For weeks the drag community in Seattle, and elsewhere, has suspected that they were targets of hate from someone reporting their profiles, specifically, as users that were not operating their pages as a real person. In other words, in order to have a 'profile' on Facebook, you are supposed to be a 'real' person. The issue is, for many stage people, their stage name is very much a real person. And for the people who would like to stay in contact with people they love or friends or coworkers, but not be found by stalkers, bullies and the like, their chosen names are also their online identity as a real person. However, as it turns out, the drag queens were right all along. They had been targeted.
Cox noted that the issue around the site's 'real name' policy arose after a single user reported hundreds of accounts as fraudulent. He says the company didn't notice that the accounts being reported as fake overwhelmingly belonged to drag queens and other LGBT people. Instead, they thought the profiles were created by users who were attempting to harass, impersonate, bully, or spam other users - which are legitimate grounds for an account's suspension.
'In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we've had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it,' continued Cox. 'We've also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we're going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.'
This is a great victory for a majority of our community that is celebrated in bars and nightclubs or applauded onstage, but often asked to not be so visible during legislative debates or at political rallies - even though both politics and legislation impact their lives, too. The key to this victory was action. Instead of just carp about it online, the queens mobilized, set up meeting, and created a petition on Change.org to get the policy changed. On Wednesday, the change they had asked for will take place, according to Cox.
That policy originally stated that 'the name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, driver's license or student ID.' In addition, it prohibited 'words, phrases or nicknames in place of a middle name' as well as 'offensive or suggestive words of any kind.'
It does, however, remain unclear exactly how Facebook's naming policy has changed. Still, Cox's statement makes it clear the company intends to enforce it differently, acknowledging that 'there's lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who's real and who's not, and the customer service for anyone who's affected. These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that.'
'With this input, we're already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors' concluded Cox. 'And we're taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way. To everyone affected by this, thank you for working through this with us and helping us to improve the safety and authenticity of the Facebook experience for everyone.'
It is important to note that public pressure from all communities - not just LGBT people - helped to secure this win. Last week it was widely reported that a new social networking site, Ello (https://ello.co/beta-public-profiles), the invite-only non-Facebook site, had started to see a huge influx of LGBT people that were abandoning Facebook over the issues of privacy, identity, and more. It would be safe to assume that Facebook was motivated to change its policy as it watched hundreds of thousands of users leave its network. Now the question is - will they return?
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