Last October, Facebook apologized to the LGBT community for the way it was enforcing its “real name” policy in a way that unfairly opened people like drag performers and transgender individuals — those whose everyday name might not match their legal name — to abuse. Any user could file a complaint that such a profile was “fake” and Facebook would give the benefit of doubt to the complainant, not the targeted user. Months later, transgender people continue to have the same problem.
Last week, a former Facebook employee who identifies as “Zip” explained how she was the latest victim. She not only worked at Facebook, but she initiated the feature that allows users to select from a wide variety of gender identity options. Like the complex ways people might identify their gender, Zip pointed out that “Names aren’t that simple and the reasons people use names are also not that simple.”
But Facebook has taken to enforcing its “real name” policy quite harshly, as Dr. Scout recently learned. Scout, a transgender man, has chosen a name for himself that is just one name — not unlike Madonna or Cher. But his name does not reflect a character or a performance — Scout is a prominent researcher on LGBT health and director of LGBT HealthLink — and his name is consistent across all of his legal documents. On Facebook, which requires a first and last name, he is forced to identify himself as “Nfn Scout,” as in “no first name.”
Last week, Scout suddenly found that he was completely locked out of Facebook. As he reluctantly wrote on Facebook after finally being allowed back on, “One minute FB seemed like a public utility, the next I ceased to exist on FB. I had no access to any of the many photos I thought so nicely chronicled events in my life, to the many friends I keep in touch with here, or to the work account I was managing.”
Facebook’s process for allowing Scout back on was rigorous. There are numerous forms of ID that Facebook will consider, so he started with his passport, which the DMV told him “‘trumps all IDs’ because it’s so much harder to get than any other.” He received a message explaining, “We can’t help with your request because we’ve determined the ID you provided isn’t real.” Though his nine-year-old passport still identifies him as female, his gender identity was never in question, and it clearly identifies him as “Scout.”
“You think my passport is a fake?” he replied. “You do know that’s a pretty hard fake to achieve, right? That made me laugh loudly.” Scout countered with his driver’s license, social security card, business card, health insurance card, and two credit cards. They all identify him as “Scout,” “NFN Scout,” or “Dr. Scout.” This proved to be enough to finally allow him back onto Facebook.
“It’s a really weird social disruption,” he told ThinkProgress. “It makes you realize how many people you don’t have emails or phone numbers for because you have a Facebook relationship. You have a large group of people you’re talking with that you’re suddenly cut off from. If this were happening to more people, they’d be up in arms.”
As an LGBT health advocate, Scout trains people across the country about how to provide social support for LGBT people. “We really have to reach out and find places where we are supported. [Facebook] is one of the places where we do get support, and to suddenly get locked out is a really interesting social phenomenon — and not a good one.”
He worries about what effect this could have on transgender people who are much more vulnerable. “I think about what it felt like for me, and then I get worried about people who don’t have that much stability in the first place. Then you think about people who don’t have any other LGBT support in their lives or as much LGBT-positive stuff in their life? That really concerns me.”
Facebook’s automated features pour salt in the wound too. Every day that he was locked out, Scout received an email from Facebook asking why he hadn’t logged in and informing him about all of the notifications he was missing.
The biggest concern Scout has about the policy is the way Facebook locks first and asks questions second. “That makes no sense whatsoever. If they’re doing this because someone complained about something, they’re letting bullies succeed and disrupt people lives. Can the right wing turn in a bunch of pages and lock us all out? If that’s the case, they’re letting themselves be used as bullies.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg defended the “real name” policy this week as something that “helps keep people safe” and helps “make the service easier to use.” Zuckerberg described its enforcement in quite a different way than it seems to play out for users, explaining, “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.” Not addressing any specific incidents, he said that Facebook is working to improve “this policy which protects so many people in our community while also serving the transgender community.”
In the meantime, the transgender community is pushing back. They launched a #LogOffForPride campaign, which asked users to deactivate their accounts for a full day last month to hurt Facebook’s engagement. Noting what a positive impact the gender options made, Zip believes “it’s time for Facebook to step up and do the same thing for names.”