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Facebook Could Become Drag-Queen-Free

The social network wants people to use their "real" names or else.
1.10.14

San Francisco performer Sister Roma has led a campaign against the proposed Facebook suspensions

Several weeks ago drag performers began discovering that their Facebook profiles had been suspended because they didn't use their legal names. The social network is now warning that it will be deactivating the accounts of hundreds of drag performers around the globe today, unless they change the names used on their profiles to their “real” names.

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The company’s name policy says the name on your profile “should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, driver's license or student ID”. Facebook doesn’t actively enforce this policy, but relies on users to report such incidences. With the large amounts of drag performers being targeted over the last few weeks, many are seeing this as a form of discrimination.

Yesterday, a group of drag activists met with Facebook representatives for a second time with the expectation that the social network would make an official public statement regarding the policy. And today drag performers and their supporters will be taking to the streets to protest outside San Francisco's City Hall.

Sister Roma was one such performer who logged into her Facebook a few weeks ago, only to be told that her account would be suspended unless she started using her legal name. She entered her name to stop the suspension, even though she’d used "Sister Roma" as her profile name since 2008.

“It was very confusing and I felt violated. I do not identify by my legal name. My name is Roma," she said. "That's how everybody knows me, so it's just been very confusing to me and my friends."

A member of the fundraising and activist non-profit Sisters of Indulgence, Roma started the #MyNameIsRoma hashtag in an effort to spread her story on social media. Once the campaign began to generate attention, Facebook invited Roma, along with other drag activists, to a meeting.

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“It was very disappointing to be honest. We brought a cross section of the community who'd been affected,” Roma said. “So we brought about eight to ten people with us and they had another five or six people in the room. They just gave us one hour, so by the time everybody got to say their two bits, the time was up.”

After the meeting, Facebook announced that they would be reactivating several hundred profiles belonging to members of the LGBT community that had recently been deactivated. This was to allow the site users two weeks to decide whether to confirm their real name, change their existing one, convert their profiles to fan pages or allow their pages to be deactivated.

A spokesperson for Facebook told VICE: “Having people use their real names on Facebook makes them more accountable, and also helps us root out accounts created for malicious purposes, like harassment, fraud, impersonation and hate speech. While real names help keep Facebook safe, we also recognise that a person’s real identity is not necessarily the name that appears on their legal documentation, and that is why we accept other forms of identification that verifies the name a person uses in everyday life.”

While a user doesn’t need to go by their birth name on Facebook, they do need to have some form of identification that has this profile name upon it, such as a driver’s license, identity document or a bill. That sort of verification process is absent from other social networks like Twitter or Reddit, where anonymous and pseudonymous users can roam free. This insistence on "real" names seems to be deeply entrenched within Facebook's culture; according to the 2010 book The Facebook Effect, founder Mark Zuckerberg once said: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

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Roma believes that because Facebook’s name policy is enforced by users it actually makes the site less safe.

"That is to say, hello, we're being targeted and bullied by a policy which you claim is in place to promote a safe, friendly and genuine user environment, but is actually being used as a weapon against us,” she said. “Even though it is 2014, we still have a lot of people out there that just don't dig us gays. And I think they've basically found a way to try and erase us and our community from Facebook.”

According to the hundreds of emails Roma’s been receiving, there are many groups that would prefer to keep their legal names private and will therefore be affected by this policy, including “political activists, survivors of domestic abuse, bullied teens, trans men, trans women… [and] performers”.

Sister Roma and other drag performers would like to use a platform that allows them to go by their chosen names without the need to verify them with the authorities and threat of harassment. Perhaps if Facebook does not step up to the challenge, then other social networking sites will.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

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