By Jon Brooks, Isabel Angell and Bay City News
Update Wednesday 5 p.m.
A Facebook official says the company will temporarily reactivate hundreds of LGBT user profiles that had been deactivated for using fake names for a grace period of two weeks. The announcement comes after several popular drag queens and transgender activists met with Facebook officials Tuesday afternoon.
Last week, hundreds of people were locked out of their profiles for using fake names-- like a drag queen stage name.
A Facebook spokesman said the company requires people to use their real name to promote accountability, but drag queen Sister Roma says that is her real name.
"If you ask anybody who I am in and out of drag, my name is Roma. So currently my profile says Michael Williams next to this gorgeous picture of me, and it doesn't make sense," she said. "People don't look for Michael Williams, and it's not who I am."
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos --who also went to the meeting-- said fake names can protect people who are transgender, bullied, or escaping domestic abuse.
The Facebook spokesman said company employees does not actively search for fake names-- they rely on other users to flag profiles. He said at the end of two weeks, people with reactivated profiles must go by their real name, or create a fan "page" with their fake name.
Facebook officials have agreed to meet with local drag queens at San Francisco City Hall to discuss its policy of requiring legal names on accounts.
On Friday, San Francisco Supervisor David Campos called on the company to meet with those drag queens who reported in recent weeks they were locked out of their accounts under their stage names. The drag queens said they could regain access to their accounts only if they listed their legal names, such as one on a driver's license or credit card.
Facebook accepted the invitation from Campos on Monday after a group of drag queens and supporters threatened to hold a protest at the company's Menlo Park headquarters.
"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.
In a post on her Facebook account, Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence said the meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, when she will join other drag queens to discuss the issue with Facebook representatives. Sister Roma, who was one of many drag queens locked out of her account, now uses her legal name, "Michael Williams," in accordance with the website's policy.
Drag queen Heklina spoke about the policy with Tech Crunch:
“I’ve had this name for 20 years now,” she says. “I walk down the street and people say ‘Hi Heklina.’ People know me by my drag name.” She says asking her to revert to her birth name is akin to not acknowledging her as a person.
When asked just how many drag queens this may have affected, Heklina says every single drag queen she knows has been asked to revert to a name Facebook believes is more suitable. Well-known drag queens such as Sister Roma from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Peaches Christ and Pollo Del Mar are only able to be found on their fan pages at the moment.
Heklina, Roma and other local drag queens, including BeBe Sweetbriar and Lil Miss Hot Mess, have used "#MyNameIs" to raise awareness of Facebook's crackdown.
"We gave Facebook a chance to meet with us and I'm glad they took it," Heklina said. "Having my profile suspended and my name questioned has been a very frustrating experience."
The drag queens have said that listing their legal names on their profiles puts them at risk of being found by family members, co-workers and others with whom they might not want to share the content of their pages.
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 17,000 people have signed a Change.org petition by Seattle drag queen Olivia LaGarce asking Facebook to allow performers to keep their stage names on their profiles.
Facebook specifies on one of its help pages that people must use their real names:
Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe. ...
Other things to keep in mind:
- The name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, driver's license or student ID
- Nicknames can be used as a first or middle name if they're a variation of your real first or last name (like Bob instead of Robert)
- You can also list another name on your account (ex: maiden name, nickname or professional name) by adding an alternate name to your profile
- Profiles are for individual use only
- Pretending to be anything or anyone isn't allowed
(Facebook) should tread carefully before changing its long-standing policy and allowing people to use fake names.
I worry about the perils in suddenly giving everyone on Facebook a choice about their identity.
With a billion users, Facebook has to contend with a huge trust issue. Its challenge is to reassure users that they can operate in a safe online world, where their posts are seen by those they want to see them and people are who they say they are.
This policy creates accountability for what someone posts, especially critical when it comes to issues like cyberbullying. And ideally, it makes conversations more civil. Could that civility and that sense of safety be at risk if the company offers users a way to use a fake name?
Quinn said on Forum that Facebook's prohibition on fake names has been in place since its inception. However, the rule has been enforced haphazardly, with accounts under the names of even fictional characters making it through the system. "Anybody can sign up for Facebook using a fake name," she said. "They don't really require a whole lot of information."
One way that Facebook gets tipped off to accounts with fake names is through community reporting, Quinn said, raising the question of "why are other drag queens like Sister Roma being reported in recent weeks?"
Quinn called Facebook's communication with users like Sister Roma, insisting that they using their real names, "ham-handed" and "insensitive."
For the media, Facebook's statement has been the following:
“If people want to use an alternative name on Facebook, they have several different options available to them, including providing an alias under their name on their profile, or creating a Page specifically for that alternative persona. As part of our overall standards, we ask that people who use Facebook provide their real name on their profile."
Sister Roma was not impressed. "Wow, that feels like a genuine, heartfelt response, doesn't it? How's the rhetoric over there?"
Sister Roma said she loves Facebook and that "the reason we're fighting for this is it's become such an important part of our lives. Nobody wants to see all of our online personalities disappear, and how boring would Facebook be without drag queens?"
She said she's been known by that name in or out of drag for 25 years. When she started the campaign against the policy, she said, she received emails from all over the world from people who use fake names for various reasons, including some whose lives would be in danger in certain countries if their real names were used.
Michelle Quinn posed the question: If anonymity is required online, why use Facebook?
"It has become the right place to go," said Sister Roma. "There's a billion users. If you're not on Facebook you may as well be invisible, almost."
But Quinn said that with over a billion users, accountability is an everyday concern for the company. Other companies require credit cards, she said. "Facebook, the one thing they have (for verification) is our identity.
"I think the issue is stickiness or trust. Do I come to Facebook once a week and go -- ugh, what’s going on there and leave? Or do I go multiple times a day and live on Facebook and never log off? ... In their view, people are who they say they are, they represent themselves."
One caller to the show who has adopted children said birth parents or other relatives have made up fake names on Facebook in order to get in touch with them. "You can see why Facebook might have a legitimate reason to have it be a real person, so people can't make up aliases and in some cases do some pretty bad things."
Another caller said she is in a witness protection program and lives out of state because someone was stalking her family and she needed to use a fake name.