Kitty Chung is a 20-year-old make-up artist from Adelaide, but Facebook thinks she’s a drag queen. At least, that’s the only explanation she can come up with for why the social network locked her out of her profile last week for using “a fake name”.
The Malaysian-Vietnamese-Australian, whose birth name is Pauline, has gone by the name ‘Kitty’ for the past eight years – even with her family. On Facebook she’s always been ‘Kitty Chung’, until last week when the social network determined, seemingly with no evidence, that her name was fake and forced her to change it.
With her profile photos showing off her blue hair, wild outfits and colourful makeup, Kitty believes she has mistakenly fallen victim to Facebook’s controversial ‘real name’ policy which has made global headlines this week for apparently targeting drag queens.
“That certainly seems the most likely, that suddenly they think I’m a drag queen and are trying to make me use my real name,” she says.
“I guess it’s a credit to my over-the-top makeup, but it’s a really annoying one.”
Facebook has had a policy requiring users to register by their real names “as it would be listed on your credit card, driver’s license or student ID” for several years, but until recently it was largely unenforced.
However in the last month Facebook has begun vigorously cracking down on users with ‘fake’ names, locking them out of their accounts without warning and refusing them access unless they reregister with their legal name.
It’s a move which has provoked worldwide outrage, mainly because it appears to be disproportionately affecting drag queens who often prefer to go by their female ‘stage names’ than their real-life male names.
The high-profile cases include American queens Heklina and Sister Roma, who have both been forced to change their Facebook profiles to male names they say they haven’t used in decades. Winner of the popular reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race Sharon Needles‘ profile page under that name was deleted.
Despite the uproar, a petition with more than 30,000 signatures, and a meeting at Facebook HQ in San Francisco last Wednesday with Heklina, Sister Roma and other LGBT activists, Facebook has refused to back down on the policy, giving suspended users two weeks to either change their names, convert their profiles into ‘like pages’, or be deleted.
Locally, Adelaide drag queen Molly Morphine estimates about “70 per cent” of her drag queen friends have had their pages shut down, saying Facebook’s policy enforcement has had a devastating effect on the industry.
“Facebook plays a huge part in the promotion of our shows, events and venues. We understand that we agree to their terms when we use the site, but surely there can be some compromise or negotiation in special circumstances like this,” she says.
For Kitty though, for whom business promotion was never a factor, being told to upgrade to a fan page or go by a name she doesn’t use in real life seems rather unfair.
“Of course I am annoyed, who wouldn’t be? I spent so long going by a certain name and now people don’t immediately know who I am on Facebook,” she says.
“People were asking to add me at IMATS (the International Makeup Artist Trade Show held in Sydney last week), I had to direct them to put a different name in to what they had been calling me during our conversations. Connecting with people is a lot harder now.
“It’s mad annoying – I feel like my personal branding has been taken away from me. But my real beef with it is how it’s going to affect people who go by chosen names in their everyday life.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way. Facebook’s real name policy has drawn heavy criticism from transgender activists, who say forcing trans people to use their birth name can be highly traumatic, particularly when changing their legal ID can be difficult to impossible.
Concerns have also been raised for people who use a Facebook alias to avoid bullying, cyberstalking or abuse, or who work in a job where having their personal information exposed puts them at risk – such as school teachers.
Facebook’s “real name” policy has led to a backlash from people who say banning aliases poses a safety risk to many users.[/caption]
A spokesperson for Facebook Australia denied the social network was seeking out and targeting drag queens or any other group, saying any profiles being suspended were as a result of policy violation reports from other users.
“As part of our overall standards, we ask that people who use Facebook provide their real name on their profile,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“If people want to use an alternative name on Facebook, they have several different options available to them, including providing an alias under their name on their profile, or creating a page specifically for that alternative persona.”
The spokesperson said users can register under a “non legal” name if they provide Facebook with two forms of ID such as a bank statement, credit card, library card or magazine subscription invoice – however the names on each ID must be matching, and one must contain a photo and date of birth that matches those on the user’s Facebook profile.
“That sounds reasonable, except none of that can really be provided if your name is a pseudonym or nickname,” Kitty says. “I mean, a magazine sub is gonna give you photo ID? I don’t think so.”
Now more drag queens in San Francisco are planning a protest rally at City Hall on October 2, and are working to mobilise protesters in other cities. The hashtag #mynameis has also been established to protest the policy.
Meanwhile, Kitty Chung has regained access to her suspended Facebook account by changing her name to “Ah Lien”, which she says is a rough romanisation of her Chinese name.
“Technically though my real name is Pauline on all legal documentation… so I’m still breaking the rules,” she says.