Ruby vs. The Robot
What Facebook’s “real name” policy taught me about identity
Ruby is not my “real” name. That’s what the Robot said.
I argued back, “Yes it is!” but Robots don’t do nuance. They follow rules and laws. I had to outsmart the Robot, but how?
It seemed hard at first to convince myself that my name was real, because it began as a specific kind of name, a faerie name, a name that queer people give themselves to associate with other queers in certain circles. Sometimes a faerie name is girly or cute, or formed in a catchy pun. Most often, a faerie name comes from an animal, a tree, a rock, or a reference to a spiritual calling.
Whatever it is, it’s honest. Salt of the Earth. It comes in the loosely ritualistic way that any community affirms its members. It’s comforting because it indicates both queer identity and queer community. And when faeries die, a faerie name is a legacy they leave behind.
I understood from the beginning that faerie names were guarded and sometimes secret. But from the same beginning, I knew Ruby was how I wanted to be seen.
I hate closets. Ugh, the sinking feeling of being unseen.
The dread that overcomes me when I am unable to influence my surroundings.
The assumption that whatever I am is so monstrous that I should wager against being visible.
If one is truly alone in the closet, they think they are hidden but truly they are trapped inside with their emotions.
Coming out of the closet is the bravest thing anyone can do, because it’s wielding sacred self-knowledge in defense of individual spirit.
Coming out is a moment that occurs once, for the first time, and then over and over for a lifetime.
Each time, we face the great dangers of speaking up.
Against the greater consequences of silence, we choose ourselves.
When I began going by Ruby, I had been out of the closet for several years, but I felt as though I was liberated for the first time.
Like I had waited 25 years to claim it. Like a beastly curse was coming unraveled. Like a golden thread was leading me into the forest.
My first name was no longer enough to describe me.
In 2014, the Robot known as Facebook began a witch-hunt for “fake” identities. They implied the purpose was to clean out the catfish, the spammers, the lurkers that were harmful.
In my eyes, the effect was pure erasure. Erasure is being put back in a closet.
Seemingly overnight, certain friends didn’t show up in my search bar and strange names filled my news feed. At first not everybody changed — it started with the ones which were most obviously unnecessary, names like Erma Gerd and Hibiscus Flower.
The Robot would change a friend’s name without notice. The Robot would inform them they could only prove their assumed name by providing approved legal documents.
The exposed friend would post to express their embarrassment, or anger, or indifference and resign to the Robot’s decree.
Some just disappeared. They couldn’t cope with the consequences of being outed. Pictures of them no longer had tags.
After it happened, I was full of remorse. The Robot was stomping out all the originality in the room. It was yearbookish … it was like being made to wear matching polo shirts, but worse.
Truth be told, it was a more familiar feeling: the Robot had picked out the weak ones, the freakish ones. I was practically quivering with survivor guilt for having my birth name. I felt like the Robot was coming for me anyway.
So I submitted my request to become “Ruby Q Lovetruth” (being conspicuous was part of the point), and the text of my identity changed before my eyes.
But the bait worked, and as quickly as I joined the fray, the Robot came looking for my documents. Then Ruby joined the erased. It was rash, and it was full of grief and death.
Lots of people I know don’t use their real name. I learned this after I joined the outsiders club. Beyond DJs, drag queens, and street kids … for humor, or because they have stuffy jobs, or work with children, or no reason at all.
Some people have “double names” that protect them, and some that merely serve different purposes.
Some people have family names they seldom use, and some people have “dead names” which they no longer use at all.
Names are sacred knowledge.
We all have room for many names, each one as “real” as the last one.
All of this makes us unique. That’s being human.
“I am an anomaly! Hurrah!”
After a month of the witch-hunt, I was still sad with rage. Did nobody remember when we used to change our names with impunity? It was the Myspace Age: everything was customizable, no exceptions.
Was there no clause that ensured my right to define my digital identity?
Surely there was. Justice will come, I thought.
For six months, I took pride from afar by watching drag queens lead the public opposition to the Robot. I liked to imagine a Silicone Valley standoff between my queer family and Facebook’s lawyers.
But the Robot was obviously not threatened.
It was in the darkness that the lessons came.
First, I realized that a search party was not coming to rescue me.
Second, erasure makes you think you made yourself invisible. It entices you to think you could make things right … if only you would conform.
We are living in such an extreme time, where ordinary people “go viral.”
We speak with our own words. We answer with our real names. Formerly taboo topics, derogatory words, and unfair stereotypes are reclaimed and reborn in time by those that identify with them.
But it doesn’t always play out on social media for all to see. Becoming seen isn’t summoning the courage to come out of the closet. It’s living with erasure and refusing to be erased. Audre Lorde (may she RIP) was a black lesbian feminist and had a lot to say about erasure. She said it this way,
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
My story doesn’t end like a fairy tale. The Robot didn’t topple into a heap of dust and privilege. The response was neither swift nor far-reaching. Facebook made a revised policy after more than a year of excuses and apologies.
I didn’t get a certificate from a wizard declaring Ruby was my real name. But I have a new profile now, new pictures, and I live a new reality: existing below the radar for survival.
And I learned that justice is not promised, nor inevitable. But survival is chosen.
Find me here: @rubyq/about