Facebook’s Real Name Policy and the Futile Search for Safe Authenticity

I am proud to count a few drag queens and burlesque dancers among my Facebook friends. They are where I first heard the news: Facebook was cracking down on performers who have profiles under their stage names instead of their birth names. Hundreds of people have found themselves locked out of their accounts and unable to tell their friends what has happened. Many don’t even know who their friends are, since performers often know each other by performance names only. The official word from Facebook was that this policy has always been in place, and that it’s there to ensure a safe and authentic community. And that’s a great idea. Or at least it would be if the names on birth certificates were universally safe and authentic.

Celine DionOutside of the drag queens and burlesque dancers, I have a lot of other friends on Facebook who don’t use the name that’s printed on their driver’s license. Some have been using a fake name for years. So this week I asked several of them why they do it.

Some are dancers and musicians who have dived head-first into their stage personas. Their stage names are the names they go by in real life these days, with only family members and their oldest friends still calling them by their birth names. The stage name is not a lie, it’s not a fake. It’s the person they grew up to become. It’s who they are. They just don’t feel the need to have it legally changed.

Others have been the targets of abuse and stalking. Having a fake name is a way to put a layer of security between them and the men/women who would do them harm.

I have one friend who works as a teacher. “I’m sure this sounds really harsh,” she told me, “because most parents are wonderful, and their motives are generally good even when their actions seem questionable.” She’s seen stories of teachers who lost their jobs because of parents digging up things from Facebook that they found problematic. “There are always going to be parents who don’t trust their kids’ teachers enough to let them be who they are.”

One guy I know does it so he can joke around with his friends without worrying that every potential employer might one day read his comments. “I compartmentalize my life basically,” he said. He told me he doesn’t want to be accountable to strangers when joking around with his friends. He’s a funny guy, and any comedian will tell you that you have to know your audience.

As I read the responses from my own friends, as well as the articles online, I realized that safety and authenticity are the reasons almost everyone uses a fake name. If singing on stage means more to you than anything in the world, then the name you give to your singing voice is your authentic self. If allowing personal information to be openly associated with your birth name puts you at risk for threats and violence, then hiding your name is being safe. And if managers and parents aren’t willing to let employees decide how to behave outside of the job, then a fake name may be the only way you’re able to be authentic with friends while remaining safe at work.

Red Cup of WaterAuthenticity doesn’t have a single face. People are multi-faceted, and such complexity can be dangerously misinterpreted. I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook, a fact that will come back to haunt me one day. I was a college freshman, and back then the things posted on Facebook could only be seen by a select few. This made for a relatively safe and authentic community. It didn’t matter if a friend posted a photo of me holding a red solo cup at a party, because the only people who saw the photo were also at the party. And they all knew I hated alcohol, and that the cup was full of water. My authentic self attended a party, but the photo shows someone else. If I decide that my boss or my mother or my church shouldn’t see that photo, it’s not because I’m hiding myself from them. It’s because I’m trying to tell the truth. I am trying to ensure that my authentic self is the one that gets seen, not the lie that the photo tells.

While creating a community that is both safe and authentic is a laudable goal, it is ultimately impossible for a behemoth like Facebook. It is too vast and too interconnected. No one can stay both authentic and safe when they don’t know who might be looking.

I am not the condensed version of myself I post online. None of us are. And some of us have led lives that are so interesting and painful and complex and dangerous that even our names can lead people astray. They can tell a false story or lead us into danger. None of us knew back in those early years that one day our Facebook profiles would be used to define who we are, just like these performers didn’t know they’d eventually have to out themselves in order to keep in touch with their friends. If any of us had known, we wouldn’t have posted those photos and we wouldn’t have made those jokes. When pulled from their original setting, such things don’t reflect the people we really are. Such things, when attached to a name but not a time or place, are no longer safe or authentic. That’s the terrifying truth of Facebook: had we known that this was what it was going to become, we never would have joined.

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If you’d like to share your support for the campaign to end Facebook’s Real Name policy, use the hashtag #MyNameIs.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me About Provincetown, Massachusetts

In my entire life, I can recall hearing about Provincetown exactly once. It was three days before I got there, when my friend Marc in Washington D.C. told me I would like it. No other description, no other mention by anyone previously.

Well StrungSituated as it is on the very end of the Cape Cod peninsula, I assumed it would be something of a rich, white, tourist trap. Which in many ways it is. It has the same overpriced parking, the same quaint bed & breakfasts, the same pedestrian main street, the same fudge shops, the same busking musicians and human statues. What Provincetown also has, however, is hundreds and hundreds of vacationing gay couples. As such, it’s got advertisements for gay dating sites on the back of the pedicabs, rainbow flags hung between buildings, leather sex shops next to the fine art boutiques, and drag queens standing outside the theaters passing out flyers for their nightly review shows.

I had spent the day driving up the arm of Cape Cod and being generally unimpressed. I did see a pretty neat old house that dates back to the mid-1600s, but in general most of the local attractions seemed to appeal to people with much more time, disposable income and/or luggage space. Parking in Provincetown was clearly a problem, so I stopped at the first cute-looking inn with signs indicating both vacancy and parking. After setting my stuff down in my room, I walked the main tourist drag of the colloquially called P-Town looking for dinner. It was still on the early side, so I took my time wandering past the shops. It still amazes me how much seeing gay couples makes me happy. Any place that a gay couple can feel comfortable showing their affection for each other must be a place that will welcome me too – or so the thinking goes. It occurs to me that this will eventually go away as acceptance grows. Before you know it, the most bigoted and harsh neighborhoods in the country will have openly gay couples. Perhaps they’ll just have the harsh, bigoted ones? It’s funny to think that in some respects that’s exactly what we’re fighting for: to live in a world where gay people are so accepted that they are free to be intolerant.

ShotglassI was walking along the pedestrian drag when I saw a shot glass in a store window. I have been trying very hard to keep my shot glass collection in check during this trip, knowing that I have to carry whatever I buy around in my car. I don’t buy anything from places my friends and family are likely to visit (since they might pick up a shot glass for me as a souvenir), and I don’t buy anything too simple or ordinary. The shot glass I purchased in P-Town falls into both of these categories. It’s very possible people I know will visit this area, and it’s a very typical shot glass. Standard size, clear glass, with an attractive yet modest design. The reason I bought it was that it was being sold in a Human Rights Campaign store, and it occurred to me that I might live to see the day where such shops are completely unnecessary, at least in the United States. My little shot glass has one small square with an equals sign in it. I’ve got a lot of cool and interesting shot glasses in my collection of over 200, but this may be the first one that has the power to truly date itself. I certainly hope it does. I hope one day I have to explain what the equals sign means to some little child who doesn’t know of a time when who you love was cause for discrimination.

Woman the the SeaFor some reason the tourist atmosphere in Provincetown doesn’t bother me the way it does in some other places. There are still old people that walk too slow and families with kids that yell and scream. It’s still impossible to find a decent parking spot and there are shops full of things I don’t want to buy. But I enjoyed my evening strolling through Provincetown more than most. It’s calm and happy for no reason in particular. At one point I watched an older woman swim straight out into the ocean while wearing a hat. She kept her head above water the whole time. I watched for several minutes, but she showed no signs of turning back.

Katy PerryI bought a ticket to a drag show since it seemed to be the thing to do. The show was called Illusions, and we were encouraged by the emcee to get the dollar bills out of our wallets as the performers love accepting tips. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” she told us. There were about five performers in all, each doing at least two changes. Occasionally the very entertaining emcee would come out to get the crowd laughing. Her performances were among my favorites, and it didn’t hurt that she did both Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, two of my aesthetic pop favorites. Other performers busted out the likes of Pink, Cher, and the unexpected Gretchen Wilson.

Afterwards I ducked into a fudge shop for a late night snack, and saw a pair of young Russian tourist girls wearing adorable fake mustaches and filling entire baskets with candy.

The next morning I walked downstairs to enjoy the continental breakfast. All of the other guests (as well as the hotel owners) were committed, middle-aged gay men. In my experience men in this category are among the most pleasant of conversationalists. I told them all about my trip, including my stop at the Westboro Baptist Church. They were fascinated and wished me well on my journey. I drove out of town, passing many a beach house on my way.

BoatsI think there is something unmistakably leisurely about Cape Cod in general and Provincetown specifically. Perhaps it’s from my years of hearing characters in books and movies talk about “going to Cape Cod for the weekend.” It conjures up a life of such ease. The kind of life where one can simply go places for the weekend. Where weekends aren’t filled with errands or obligations or catching up on your sleep. Instead, they are a chance to get away from the dullness of a worry-less life, the kind of life filled with weekday lunches and club memberships and Great Gatsbys. Yet the undeniable liberal culture in Provincetown takes the stuffy edge off what might otherwise be a vacation town for the One Percent. I feel certain I will find some excuse to return to Cape Cod, if for no other reason than to show one of my fellow West Coasters what the big deal is. Maybe we’ll rent a beach house, take in a drag show, or buy some name brand leather whips. And we’ll talk about how nice it is to get away from the heat of the city and into the fresh ocean air. We’ll talk about it like it’s something strange and unusual. I suppose we’ll talk like we’re from New York City.