Facebook, a longtime supporter of LGBT issues, has come under fire in recent months for a policy that, according to those in the transgender community, is incredibly harmful.
Facebook requires its users to use their real names on the site. This "real name policy" has been controversial for many years, but an extra bright light has been blasted on it as of late, in the context of the Supreme Court's historic ruling in favor of marriage equality.
"Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe," the company says of its policy. "The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life and as our acceptable identification forms would show."
Basically, Facebook forces users to use the name they would find on official documents – IDs, paycheck stubs, bills, bank cards, etc. The list of acceptable identification forms is long, but still pretty stuffy.
The bottom line is that Facebook wants your real name. It's better for data tracking. It's better for ad targeting.
What it's not better for, according to some activists, is the transgender community.
Just days after same-sex marriage was legalized across America, protests erupted at the San Francisco Pride Parade. Protestors carried signs that read "Shame on Facebook" and "My Name Is".
“We didn’t want to target pride or anything like that but we just wanted to make Facebook feel a little bit unwelcome and realize that this is an issue that is not going away until they fix it,” Lil Miss Hot Mess, a San Francisco drag queen, told Silicon Beat.
Around the same time, a former Facebook employee penned a lengthy post called "My name is only real enough to work at Facebook, not to use on the site"
"I always knew this day would come. The day that Facebook decided my name was not real enough and summarily cut me off from my friends, family and peers and left me with the stark choice between using my legal name or using a name people would know me by. With spectacular timing, it happened while I was at trans pride and on the day the Supreme Court made same sex marriage legal in the US," she says.
"Names aren’t that simple and the reasons people use names are also not that simple. It’s been covered a thousand times before. We use names that don’t match our ID on Facebook for safety, or because we’re trans, or because we’re just straight up not known by our legal names."
The woman, who goes by Zip, says she was the one who initiated Facebook's custom gender feature. Earlier this year, Facebook began offering infinite gender options for users to list on their profiles.
"Facebook needs to do better than this. Technology is not neutral, and a technology that a billion people use to communicate has the power to warp and change reality around itself. Adding custom gender was a small change, yet it hit the front page of CNN, angered Fox News and got its own segment on The Daily Show. It encouraged other large sites such as Google Plus and OKCupid to handle nonbinary gender too. It exposed the world to the notion that gender might not be a binary. That’s profound. It’s time for Facebook to step up and do the same thing for names," she says.
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For members of the transgender community, Facebook's real name policy is a threat to their safety.
During a recent Q&A session on Facebook, someone asked Mark Zuckerberg about this very issue:
Hi Mark, you made a tool to let everyone put rainbow flags over their profile pictures, but you also insist on having people use their real names on Facebook. Many people in the trans community consider this discriminatory and even argue it puts their lives at risk. Are you going to end the practice?
This is an important question. Real names are an important part of how our community works for a couple of reasons.
First, it helps keep people safe. We know that people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they're using their real names. There are plenty of cases -- for example, a woman leaving an abusive relationship and trying to avoid her violent ex-husband -- where preventing the ex-husband from creating profiles with fake names and harassing her is important. As long as he's using his real name, she can easily block him.
Second, real names help make the service easier to use. People use Facebook to look up friends and people they meet all the time. This is easy because you can just type their name into search and find them. This becomes much harder if people don't use their real names.
That said, there is some confusion about what our policy actually is. Real name does not mean your legal name. Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you. If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that. In this way, we should be able to support everyone using their own real names, including everyone in the transgender community. We are working on better and more ways for people to show us what their real name is so we can both keep this policy which protects so many people in our community while also serving the transgender community.
Not exactly a punt, but a typical "we're working to find better ways to address this" response.
It's not just transgender who feel Facebook's real name policy is discriminatory and ultimately unsafe. People who are victims of online abuse have denounced Facebook's policy, saying pseudonyms let them hide from trolls. Domestic violence victims say the same thing. Facebook has even faced lawsuits from Native American activists over the policy.
As mentioned before – this has been an issue for a long time. But now, as millions of millions of people, with the help of Facebook, rainbow their profile pictures – the real name policy and the effect it has on so many people seems that much more disjointed from a company that prides itself on fighting for LGBT rights.