Facebook has a number of folks in the LGBTQ community up in arms over the decision to crack down on people who operate on Facebook with any name other than their real name on their profile page. I’m not interested in wading into the drama and complaining about it. There are plenty of others who are doing that. I’m also equally torn between supporting the move and thinking it is utterly boneheaded and damaging. I believe I could write a post defending Facebook’s move, and I could just as successfully write a post ripping the decision to shreds.

What I’m interested in doing however, is exploring a little around how this move by Facebook impacts identity for many people and why it seems like the people most impacted are gender non-conforming individuals.

The gender non-conforming community is pretty diverse and we have seen this past year tensions within it as trans persons and the drag community have been at odds, yet in this FaceBook issue the similarities as well as some of the differences between these groups of individuals is visible.

The move by Facebook isn’t really new either. It has been a few years since my name on-line was Thomas Equality Waters. I first adopted such an on-line identity as I watched other activists doing it. It seemed like a perfect way to make equality visible, and keep the goal of equality firmly entrenched in the dialogue. I knew immediately, as I added “Equality” that I was breaking the rules (Terms of Service), and anyone who has operated under anything other than their real name is either lying if they say they didn’t know it was a violation, or they are dumb. But there are times to break rules, even for a rigid rule follower like me. I was Thomas Equality Waters for quite a while actually. But I chose to go back to being, Thomas Clyde Waters. Why that was, I’ll leave to a different post. But suffice to say, for sometime Facebook has been getting picky about names.

For FaceBook to be a useful and meaningful space, it has to be a place where people can be and are expected to be authentic. In friendships of the face to face type, if they are to last, you have to be willing to show up as the person that you are, and on-line connections are not much different. So the need to demand that you use a real identity on-line makes some sense, or else we might as well all just go do cosplay or something. Facebook is life, not fiction.

But many gender non-conforming people are simply trying to be their real authentic selves on-line. For a trans person, their profile may be a way in which they explore finding their real identity that they are sharing with others. For others, there is a desire to create safety, and shelter their physical self which could be harmed physically or emotionally in a physical world setting.

For some people it is less life and death, and one group that is being targeted is drag queens. Here is another way that drag performers and trans persons are being treated as similar when in reality, they have different needs.

You may not believe this, but when I was 20, I worked on a stage act where I would sing- with my real voice- while in drag. I was going to be, The Incomparable Tommi! That was two “m”s and an “i” probably dotted with a heart. Just kidding about the heart. Drag performers are real people who have a real name, and then they also have a stage name. Facebook has been big for the drag community as a place to build a community and an audience. But these are folks who do have a real, legal name as well as a public personae.

For a trans person, it is an entirely different thing. For a trans person, one’s self-chosen name is their real name as it reflects the authenticity of their gender identity. The very notion that FaceBook demands a person use their given name (and by FaceBook’s definition that means an official name, or a driver’s license name), is tone deaf to the reality of trans persons, which is utterly strange given that FaceBook gives you like 38 options to describe your gender identity.

Facebook requires everyone to provide their real names so you always know who you’re connecting with.

This illustrates the contradiction of FaceBook- that they appear to care about how trans persons self-identify, but then refuse to allow the trans person a voice to be known by their self-chosen name. Some people can get around the FaceBook requirement by adding a nickname, or professional name and FaceBook shows how to do this. For most drag performers this will solve their problems. But not so for trans and some other gender non-conforming people.

What alternate names are allowed on Facebook?

But I’m struck by how much a person’s whole identity is linked to or determined by their on-line personae. I have a FB friend who recently was required to drop the word “Equality” from his name, and this was extremely hard on him. It felt to him as if a part of his identity was being taken away from him in a violent way. For many gay, lesbian, bi, trans or queer people, we have been invisible for so long, so that to have a way to make ourselves visible feels liberating and empowering. Then, to have that taken away feels shaming and as if we are being forced again into invisibility. Of course, my friend is no less visible under his “regular” name than he was when he used Equality as a middle name. He is the same guy, either way- he talks the same, says the same kinds of things… everything. And his friends know him as his real self no matter what his name is. But the way this type of thing makes some feel- is a product of years and years of cultural oppression. 

For others, the issue isn’t about visibility in the same way, but rather the way they see their role in the LGBTQ community, and the way FaceBook options seem like a bad fit. FaceBook has always had the ability to create pages that are different from your profile. I have a page for thomascwaters.com, as well as a profile for myself. But these pages are also called Fan Pages which is unfortunate.  The activist/drag person of Michael Williams aka Sister Roma shows why. Roma writes:


Individuals like Roma have been pioneers as gender non-conforming leaders, mentors, advocates and activists.  To relegate what Roma does to something where Fandom is linked is ludicrous, and speaks to an entertainment mindset for Facebook, which is clearly run by privileged straight people who haven’t a clue what it means to have to fight for your identity.

Or maybe not. Maybe it is merely an oversight based on a lack of awareness. FaceBook has demonstrated a sensitivity to trans and other gender non-conforming persons:

“There’s going to be a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing, but for the few it does impact, it means the world,” said Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who worked on the project and is herself undergoing gender transformation, from male to female. On Thursday, while watchdogging the software for any problems, she said she was also changing her Facebook identity from Female to TransWoman.

Today it was announced that FaceBook would meet with members of the drag and trans communities on Wednesday:

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,” Campos said in a statement Monday.

There have been tensions between the drag and trans community recently, and this is an opportunity for these two groups of gender non-conforming persons to support each other in ways that will benefit all.

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