What’s in a Name?

Arizona drag queens sound off on Facebook’s “real-name” policy

By Anthony Costello, Oct. 23, 2014.

Kevin “Pussy LeHoot” McSweeny used his Facebook profile as a platform to come out.

In recent weeks Facebook’s “real-name” policy has made international headlines and impacted the online presence of countless individuals, including drag queens, DJs and other performers.

The popular social media site’s policy, which has been in effect for years, states, “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life …”

Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, issued an apologetic statement in a post on his profile Oct. 1 to quell fears about the policy targeting drag performers and the transgender community, yet users are still receiving notices to change their names.

On Oct. 6, Barbra Seville shared a screen capture of a request from Facebook asking her to update her name accompanied by: “Yikes, Facebook finally got me!!! I thought they were backing off the name policing??!!!???”

Following this notice the local drag icon’s Facebook profile name was changed to Bob Ra Seville to prevent further account suspension.

However, experiences, reactions and concerns within the LGBT community have been as diverse as the individuals impacted by the policy.

The Real-Name Game

“I kind of wasn’t that shocked by it,” said drag queen Kevin “Pussy LeHoot” McSweeny. “I think it just caught everyone off guard.”

The host of Charlie’s “Pussy LeHoot and Friends,” the longest running drag show in the southwest, joined Facebook in 2009 with help from Barbra Seville who walked him through the account sign-up process.

“We were trying different variations like ‘P. LeHoot,’” McSweeny said, “But it had already locked in my real male name.”

McSweeny ended up using his real name for the next 60 days until — according to another Facebook policy — he had the option to change or update it.

And, during that period of time, McSweeny reconnected with old friends, family, co-workers and teachers, which he described as a positive experience.

“I was so happy with everything that had happened in those 60 days I just kept it that way,” McSweeny said.

He added that he has no plans to use his drag name of Facebook. But, in solidarity with those that did not share his perspective, he posted a supportive sentiment on his profile Sept. 21.

“When I was a little kid I never was a ‘princess’ I was a ‘QUEEN’ from the get go … anyone who has ever met me can testify!!! I never needed a girl’s name to make that point. So take that Facebook … Shame on you for hassling the girls … hang tough kids … we’ve come a long way baby!”

Karrington “Nevaeh McKenzie” Valenzeula Photo by Scotty Kirby

Karrington “Nevaeh McKenzie” Valenzeula Photo by Scotty Kirby

The Profile Predicament

Local performer Karrington “Nevaeh McKenzie” Valenzuela launched his drag career after performing in Barbra Seville’s Newcomer of the Year Show at the age of 21.

“When I heard about the legal name policy I changed my drag name to my real name on my profile,” Valenzuela said, adding that he sees how the real-name policy could put LGBT community members in danger in some scenarios.

“My friends are very afraid, they don’t want to put themselves out there for the real hate speech, and those that promote violence,” Valenzuela said. “You’re putting people out there to face a lot of scrutiny.”

Similarly, Arizona State University student and burgeoning drag performer Sean “Libby Sheffield” Mayer said that performers and entertainers are not the only ones impacted by the policy.

Sexual abuse victims, people trying to escape abusive relationships as well as closeted individuals and members of the trans community could all be justified in using a profile name that conflicts with Facebook’s policy, Mayer said.

“It’s just reinforcing what society tells you to be,” Mayer said. “It not only affects drag performers, but it affects trans youth the most, and many of them are not in the best situations. They’re being told by Facebook … your identity is wrong and you’re only as legitimate as a piece of paper.”

However, Mayer believes that Facebook’s willingness to listen to its users criticisms about their policies is a positive first step.

The Future of Facebook

All three drag performers use Facebook to connect with fans, friends and family.

And, while alternative social networking options continue to gain momentum — Ello, an invite-only network that’s grown exponentially since the Facebook’s policy began making headlines, and Dragbook, a near carbon copy of Facebook where drag queens and kings are encouraged to post and promote — all three are in agreement that leaving the world’s largest social media site to start somewhere fresh is not the answer.

“Everyone is on Facebook, and you’re going to leave something like that for Dragbook? No,” McSweeny said. “Facebook is about so much more, and to make something separate for it … trying to create a subculture, no.”

Valenzuela agreed that switching social networks is not the solution he’s looking for.

“It’s a lot of work to even add myself,” Valenzuela said of joining Dragbook. “… I’m not on board with that, I shouldn’t have to settle.”

As for how they plan to handle the policy going forward, McSweeny and Valenzuela offer different opinions.

“I think if it’s that big of a deal to you and it’s going to affect you that bad — your life and safety — then I think you should leave Facebook,” McSweeny said.

Moving forward, Valenzuela urges anyone concerned about not using their real name to waith out all the hype.

But, in scenarios where fear of coming out of the closet is keeping Facebook users from revealing their true identities, McSweeny said social media offers an upside to the often-negative experience.

McSweeny initially weighed in on the social media debacle via his Facebook page Sept. 19, recounting his public coming out on Facebook five years ago, “ … and there they saw it, me in all my GLORY!!!!! It was their decision to reach out to me, and the results were amazing. Thanks Babs for the honest mistake. It’s been the best one ever made. And p.s. no one has ever had a problem finding “Pussy” on FB.”

With Gov. Jan Brewer vetoing Senate Bill 1062 and marriage equality on it’s way to becoming a reality for Arizona, McSweeny may very well be right in that attitudes are finally starting to change.


#MyNameIs: A Status Update From Facebook

“I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.

In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we’ve had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it. We’ve also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we’re going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.

The way this happened took us off guard. An individual on Facebook decided to report several hundred of these accounts as fake. These reports were among the several hundred thousand fake name reports we process every single week, 99 percent of which are bad actors doing bad things: impersonation, bullying, trolling, domestic violence, scams, hate speech, and more — so we didn’t notice the pattern. The process we follow has been to ask the flagged accounts to verify they are using real names by submitting some form of ID — gym membership, library card, or piece of mail. We’ve had this policy for over 10 years, and until recently it’s done a good job of creating a safe community without inadvertently harming groups like what happened here.

Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life …

We believe this is the right policy for Facebook for two reasons. First, it’s part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm. Second, it’s the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.

All that said, we see through this event that there’s lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who’s real and who’s not, and the customer service for anyone who’s affected. These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that. … And we’re taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way. To everyone affected by this, thank you for working through this with us and helping us to improve the safety and authenticity of the Facebook experience for everyone.”

— Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, issued an apologetic statement in a post on his profile Oct. 1


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