How Facebook Outed Me and Endangered Me With Their Name Policy
I was late to the Facebook game. As where most people were on the social media bandwagon shortly after the trend began, I was still dealing with issues of insecurity, fear of judgement and the court of public opinion regarding my identity.
I was, to be fair, never in “The Closet.” My gender was never a question I had to wrestle with. But, I knew my gender was an issue for others- a religious issue, a political issue, an issue met with misunderstandings, confusion and typically a default to allegations like “Pervert” or “Child molester.” I knew the alignment of my gender since I was young, but having been presumed gay due to my femininity and witnessing so many adult gay men and women experience harassment, abuse, isolation and, in one case I saw up close and personal, excommunication from a church, allowing other people permission to assess the quality of my character and project their ignorance onto me was something that terrified me and took years to reconcile with. A lot of people don’t realize that we transgender men and women were usually labeled gay or lesbian by society even before we developed the self awareness or courage to admit to ourselves that our gender mapping didn’t match our sex.
I never told anyone I was transgender until less than a decade ago. Although I had spent years researching the internet to understand what it implied, the information was sparse and incomplete, often couched between fetishist advertisements and porn. Other websites offered up extensive and difficult to consume medical documents which often pathologize transgender people in rather sinister ways and of course, the conservative websites threatening the all-to-familiar hellfire and brimstone fate certain to befall men who dared to dress as women.
To those who knew me, the way I looked, sounded and dressed was simply “eccentric.”A polite term for weirdo or freak, I understood. I had long nails and long hair and was called also called a hippie by older folks. Still, when being in public I experienced tremendous fear so I often dressed down, clipped my nails and did my best to disappear. That was the ultimate goal.
I lived a rather isolated life for most of it, and I contribute that to much of my uncertainty. There was no one like me around. I had no support groups, no local community, no media representation or politicians advocating for people like me, no touchstone and no place I appeared to fit. The internet was a blessing in terms of giving me a reach beyond my grasp as a young person. Yahoo! Chat rooms taught me the word “Transgender.”
Social media gave me the ability to represent who I was authentically without have to provide an explanation or tackle the inevitable discomfort that someone always has the desire to express while clutching their pearls and shouting out scripture. It was a relief to talk, share ideas, engage on a level I had not had the opportunity to do before without having my gender taking the lead and usurping anything I had to contribute in a social setting. And I hated social settings anyway- so Facebook and Twitter allowed me to feel humanized and in some way connected while still maintaining my privacy and distance from face-to-face interactions.
Upon logging in one day I discovered my account had been suspended pending my participation in authenticating my identity. According to Facebook, I had to send a government issued ID in order to continue to use the platform. At first, perhaps due to my naivety, I believed it as simply a security measure to validate that a real person willing to be accountable for the activity and conduct was operating the account. I provided them the details they requested, having not yet legally gone through a name change for a multitude of personal reasons- such as a legal prerequisite of it being broadcast to your entire, albeit small, midwestern town in a heavily conservative area that “Mr.” is now known formally as “Mrs.”
I hadn’t expected to log in the next morning to discover that Facebook had retroactively changed every post I made, every post made by other users in which I had been tagged and every photo that I appeared in to expose my birth name in spite of the name I’d been using for years.
Friends, not recognizing the name, unfriended me. Family members who had abused and rejected me once upon a time had located me and attempted to open lines of toxic communication. I was inundated with questions and a few people who had deeply held convictions regarding LGBT identities asked things to the effect of; “Are you a man?”
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only victim of Facebook’s sweeping enforcement of a Name Policy that impacted everyone from Drag Queens to women in hiding from dangerous and predatory ex-partners. However, as a person who had become heavily embedded in the LGBTQ community and friends with many drag queens, my name was lifted off a master list of targets using a Drag Queen’s friend list as a resource- and all of this chaos was the consequence of one single man.
An international controversy ensued, with Facebook undergoing immense scrutiny for what clearly appeared to be an attack intended specifically levied at the LGBTQ community- with everyone else, like Native American users- simply being collateral damage. Soon, reporting people for having a suspected “fake name” became retaliatory- some users were reporting individuals they just didn’t like or who had expressed a sentiment in a group they disapproved of. A vast majority of “HuggieBunny” and “JacksGrandma” went unscathed. Sure, I complained. I submitted tickets which fetched a polite but dismissive response. I had an anxiety attack, deleted my profile temporarily then logged back in and changed all my privacy settings as not to lose all the content and contacts I’d spent years aggregating. As a person who lived in a rural area, Facebook had been pivitol in my efforts to not feel so alienated from the greater world.
Enter Sister Roma, a San Francisco based humanitarian and Drag Queen who took up the gauntlet and challenged the administration of Facebook who had, up until that point, refused to consider the damage they were doing to their more vulnerable users.
In the end, after a little more than a month of negotiating, Facebook announced it wouldn't remove, but would relax it’s real name policy. Thanks to Sister Roma, whom I had been instructed by a friend who is a trans man to reach out to. I was told to provide specific information regarding my case that would be passed on to a key contact Sister Roma had within Facebook. I woke up one day to discover my name had been changed back to the name I signed up as.
I sat in awe over the next couple of weeks as I watched hundreds- not an exaggeration- literally hundreds of my performer and transgender Facebook friends return to their original identities. This was a direct result of Sister Roma’s activism on our behalf.
That was in 2015.
I thought that was the end.
But I had no idea how far reaching the ramifications of that one month name-change would be.
In the time since then, we’ve had a new President. New Government policies that directly impact or altogether endanger our rights as LGBTQ Americans. We’ve had a Transgender military ban, a banning of the word “Transgender” from the CDC, along with “Vulnerable people.” Religious extremism has usurped the rights of LGBTQ people to safe and equal access to healthcare needs. Instances of expressed hatred and threats of violence have escalated across social media, and in the world, especially for transgender people.
After Facebook outed me publicly, I believed, in retrospect, it was a good thing. I was forced to face detractors and for the first time, in a the court of public opinion I had spent years fearing, really own my identity once and for all. Perhaps it was because they made me fight so hard for it; Perhaps because in that small window of time so many of us, mostly strangers, were placed in the cross-hairs of conservative outrage and we experienced injustice as a community. It is a battle we’re all familiar with and on greater scales have been fought by many before us, but this was on the new and altogether alien terrain of digital identity ownership.
I became an accidental activist after Trump. The justified fears and rampant suppression of transgender men and women weren’t exclusive to America, as the UK reported an alarming 81% increase in hate crimes against transgender folks in just a short period of time. It was impossible, in fact, not an option to remain silent.
I chose to be vocal. I chose to be visible and present. It seems to me a bit ironic how I longed for other things, other avenues I wanted to explore such as literature and film-making and acting that I never imagined myself a political person. I hadn’t even voted until 2008 and that was only to express my solidarity for Barack Obama. I wanted to live in a time so redeeming from a grotesque history as to experience life under the leadership the first Black President; A man who understood, by the sheer nature of his proximity to it, inequality, injustice and a desperate need to evolve our world view to be more inclusive. I had no interest in politics however, just the idea of progress and evolution. After that election, I slipped back into the quiet security of unwavering trust in the institutions I knew nothing about believing fully I simply didn’t need to understand. Good things were happening. Marriage equality was celebrated across the country. President Obama had repealed the discriminatory “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy that squelched gay military members from openly serving the country. We were moving forward.
I wasn’t smart enough to be an activist. That isn’t self deprecating. I didn’t know enough about the political realm to have a voice I could be confident in expressing. In fairness, I found it all to be quite boring as a young person, although the moments such as the aforementioned I wept about with joy. Blame it on my age, or my limited access to information- I simply had other, more pressing issues and interests. That wasn’t so long ago, and a stark contrast to the fact that everyone is an armchair political activist today, especially those so devoted to a President- those who never cared about politics- and many of whom still don’t, but align themselves with an ever narrowing world view that Donald Trump represents to them. They’re not smart enough to be activists either, but they’re more comfortable with their caustic opinions and bigotry that they shout from beneath a sea of red hats. Useful idiots, to be sure, many of whom lock themselves in an echo chamber and see those rallies not altogether differently than a sermon at a megachurch. Their reach into politics stops at knowing who they’re told to attack and who they’re told to vote for by a man they elevate and believe he knows more than they do- That he is smarter than they are.
My unexpected shift into becoming more vocal about my opposition to radical ideologues and the terrifying future they were vying to steal from those seated in the LGBTQ+ acronym was an almost unconscious transition.
And I certainly had no idea it would land me on kill lists of hate sites or result in graphically written death threats, many of which were addressed to my dead name… My birth certificate name which I’d protected with tremendous vigilance and kept far separated from my own identity, never intermingling the past with the present. A name that had been revealed only in one place for a short period of time:
A quick search revealed that even though Facebook returned my name to that which I created my account under, they never changed any posts made by others in which I had been tagged or posts put on my wall which indelibly tied one name to the other and was now being weaponized against me by radical conservatives and trolls, which published all of my details, home address, names of estranged relatives I don’t speak to, encouraging others to doxx me and saying “If you live nearby, show ‘him’ what’s what” and “F*ck it til it bleeds.”
I had no idea this was a common thing that happens to vocal transgender folks who speak. I’m certainly not alone, unfortunately. Some hate group keep us on frequently updated lists, post all public records scraped from courthouses and civic divisions such as property deeds or mug shots. Some of it is acquired from data sales sites where, for a mere five or ten dollars, you can search anyone’s identity and be provided a google map leading you directly to their front door.
In America, it is completely legal. It is not legal in other countries, including the UK, which subscribes to the Data Privacy Act which required every single website that provides access to UK residents to update their privacy terms and restrict the data they collect from visitors originating from that country.
Facebook provided a pathway that made me, as a user in good faith, to be vulnerable and required me to take lofty measures to increase my safety at home. While I understand I elected to speak out in a deeply contentious arena where I might be heard by an opposition force, an opinion, regardless of position, should never result in anyone being placed in harms way. An opinion is not provocation of violence.
And Facebook should have never placed itself in a position of authority over my personal record or who has access to it and then absolve themselves of accountability for the consequences of their negligence.