In September 2014, hundreds of LGBTQ people, Native Americans, survivors of domestic and sexual violence, political dissidents, and other sexual, ethnic, or cultural minorities found their Facebook profiles unceremoniously reported as “fake” and subsequently removed from the site or blocked, while others had their profiles changed to their legal names without their consent. Users soon learned that this was the result of a new “real names” policy, and it didn’t take long for marginalized communities to come together and advocate for the reformation of this dangerous and discriminatory policy via the #MyNameIs campaign.
This spawned meetings with local officials and protests at Facebook’s San Francisco Headquarters, most notably at San Francisco Pride in 2015, and The Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club even awarded the #MyNameIs campaign with the Hank Wilson Activist Award at their 39th Annual Dinner and Gayla in July 2015. The groups’ work garnered an apology from the company’s Chief Product Office Chris Cox; unfortunately, his promise to “do better” turned out to be empty, as Facebook has resisted significant changes to either its policy or enforcement procedures. Today, despite years of consistent uprising, petitioning, pleading, and resisting, Facebook maintains that that the policy “keeps people safe”, and scores of our most vulnerable community members continue to be directly — and detrimentally — affected.
Enter formidable Bay Area femme Dottie Lux.
Dottie is a bonafied force to be reckoned with. She proudly produces San Francisco’s longest running weekly burlesque show, Red Hots Burlesque. She is also a performer and instructor that has been seen in the New York Times, Museum of Sex, SF Chronicle, NBC, KOFY TV, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Bard and Mills College, NYU, and many more publications, festivals and venues. Dottie is known for the absurdity she brings to burlesque and her ability to rule a room with a microphone or sway of her hips. She is a worker-owner at newly co-op run The Stud, the historical first gay venue in SF, and Facebook’s “real names” policy makes her see red and spit fire. A key organizer and influencer in the past #MyNameIs campaign, Dottie has once again picked up the cause, manually assisting overturning hundreds of her comrades suspensions, blocks, and nonconsensual outings, all without recognition or compensation. I recently sat down with Dottie to lavish her with praise and dissect her genius.
So Dottie, have you yourself been struck down by Facebook’s “real name” policy? If so, what was your experience like?
About three years ago there was a first wave of name reporting, and I was victim to that. My name was forced to be changed from “Dottie Lux”, and I chose to add the name “Smith” after “Lux” to “legitimize” it. What’s hilarious to me is that “Lux” is the part of the name that I was flagged for — as it seemed “fake” or out-of-the-ordinary — and yet it’s the only part of my name that I was actually born with.
It’s violating when your name is taken. It doesn’t feel consensual, and it feels as though your identity is stripped from you. It is not a comfortable feeling at all.
In your experience, which populations are made the most vulnerable by this policy, and why?
Any name that sounds outside the ordinary is at risk of being flagged, and Facebook does all of its policing through user reports of content. Instead of staffing employees to proactively observe and investigate potential violations, they let routine Facebook users determine what should and shouldn’t be deemed “acceptable”. What that does is give Internet bullies and trolls yet another tool to utilize as a means of harassment, intimidation, or worse. It gives folks who are looking to dox or harm other people a reasonably effective way to do that; it creates a hierarchy of power on a platform that shouldn’t have one. Those who are most vulnerable to this oppression are transgender youth, indigenous people, and survivors of domestic abuse. There are also the performers, which is the demographic that I have the most access to and influence within.
What about the real name policy motivated you to take further action?
A few years ago, myself and a couple other community leaders were given direct access to Facebook because of certain protests and meetings that we generated and were involved in around combatting the Real Name Policy (RNP). I only decided recently to help people independently; previously, I’d been forwarding those who inquired after how to reactivate their accounts to Lil Miss Hot Mess, an influential drag performer and activist who splits their time between NYC and San Francisco. She’s basically dedicated her entire scholastic career to this topic. But a few weeks ago, I got fed up. I’d been continuing to see users’ names get taken down. Our direct dialogue with Facebook didn’t seem to be having any influence, yet they continued to solicit that core group of us for “feedback”. We were doing the job of consultants — at the very least, we were doing the job of an organized focus group — yet we were never reimbursed for our labor, and the RNP continued to wreak havoc. So I finally decided, enough with the free labor. I’m going to help people, and Facebook is going to pay me to do it.
After all, I’ve paid them hundreds of dollars a month to advertise the shows that I produce and the venue that I run, all while continuing to receive zero compensation for the hard work I was doing on their behalf. So I turned my attention to helping people restore their “real names”, because the only thing that should determine whether a name is “real” is whether or not the person in question consented to being called by it.
To be honest, this kind of power, I’m not even comfortable with it — I don’t even believe we should have it. But both Lil Miss Hot Mess and I were motivated by the desire to help all of those whose stories resonated with our own: those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, conform.
Have you seen similarly problematic policies on other social media platforms?
To this day, Facebook is the only social media platform I’m aware of that requires your government identification to join. I understand that they had well-intentioned motivation for originally implementing this policy: they actually wanted to avoid bullying and encourage genuine interactions between real people. They figured if people are using their government names, that they’ll be less likely to bully people online; that it would create accountability. What they didn’t realize — and refuse to acknowledge — is that the policy actually enables folks to put others at danger by simply filing a report. The issue is equating one’s government name with legitimacy and authenticity. By default, doing so implies that utilizing a chosen name is illegitimate and inauthentic, and it makes the critical needs of many marginalized populations invisible. Facebook even refers to non-government names as “aliases”, a word that conjures up notions of deception and insidious intent. These minority demographics, who often are already experiencing a lack of access and resources, are then put in the risky, stressful, and time-consuming position of having to defend their identities as they’re called into question; that is, if their identities aren’t eradicated altogether.
To this day, how many people have you successfully assisted in allowing them to be identified by their preferred name on Facebook? Can you estimate how many unpaid hours per week you’ve been donating to this cause?
As of now, I’ve successfully assisted with 206 names, and I’ve never searched anyone out to help them. They’ve all come to me. A little while back I posted a simple Facebook status to my networks that asked, “Is this Real Name Policy working for you? Who is still being affected?” One time, that’s it. And the response was overwhelming.
I’ve sent two invoices for my work to Facebook — which have gone unanswered — and have two more prepared to submit. Each invoice is for less than ten hours, but when you combine that with a work week like mine — where I’m typically working 60+ hours already — it doesn’t allow for much breathing room.
The million-dollar question: How are you doing it?
So Facebook’s theory is that anyone can do this. They claim that you are able to provide several varieties of identification, some of which — like magazine subscriptions — can be acquired under any name of your choosing. Other people have used credit cards, proclamations from the city, etc to submit and “prove” their identity. But the information on how to do so is difficult to find on Facebook’s page, and most people affected by the RNP simply don’t know how, or are too intimidated by the process to try. They feel both violated and “caught”, as though they committed a crime of some kind by not providing their government ID. They can experience unwarranted feelings of guilt and shame. Throughout all of this, I’m continuing to send feedback to Facebook. I submit personal flagged user testimonies, screenshots of the messages that flagged users are sent by the platform, and then some form of aforementioned identification — if the flagged user has it, that is.
Can folks contact you for help in getting their preferred name back on Facebook? If so, how should they reach you?
Yes, I’d hope that people would continue to contact me, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s helpful if the email address they’re using to contact me contains their preferred name and if the body of the email illustrates that this is the name they are referred to “in real life”. Facebook does not consider names used for business or names used for personal safety to be “real names”; only names that are used in your everyday life. Finally, if you can attach any documentation containing your preferred name to the email, that’s also incredibly useful. The clearer and more concise the information you provide is, the easier the process will be!
To be frank, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be doing this work unpaid. It’s exhausting and tedious. I never wanted to be a Customer Service Representative, but that’s the position I ended up in. Why? Because Facebook has no Customer Service Representatives. They don’t offer an accessible way of dialoguing with those that utilize and consume their product. Instead, they have paid employees to review flagged profiles and place lightning-fast judgment on whether or not a name is illegitimate, and these employees are largely not familiar with or trained in our sensitive communities. They don’t understand that native people may have names that sound unfamiliar and “unlikely” to them. They don’t understand that a woman may be using a preferred name to protect herself and her children from a dangerously persistent abuser, or that a popular performer may use a preferred name to hide from a stalker. They don’t understand how transgender folks may move through several different names depending on their individual journeys, all of them valid (not to mention that they are disproportionately targeted with violence, particularly transgender women of color). They don’t understand us.
All we want — all we’ve EVER wanted — is for Facebook to remove the “fake name” reporting option, to stop asking for ID, and to create an accessible and user-friendly appeals process.
I’m not a saint. I’m just one tiny nearly-naked showgirl going up against a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate. At the risk of sounding defeatist, I’ve thrown my hands up before; it’s only a matter of time before I throw my hands up again.