In the age of the internet, social media has become one of our current generation’s most important tools for communication, networking, keeping up with family and friends around the globe, and for many, even marketing. Among these sites, Facebook is one of the most readily familiar, and widely used examples, but for members of the transgender community, it comes along with an unfortunate dark side in which trans individuals who have their accounts falsely reported by stalkers or other harassing parties with anti-trans agendas, or even simple personal vendettas on the basis of using our authentic names are often forced to either abandon our accounts entirely, or, even worse, resume identifying online with our birth names, or “dead names,” as they are known within the community, which exposes us to the threat of violence from individuals who seek to harass, slander, or even actively stalk and commit violence against trans adults, youth, and even children on account of our refusal to sacrifice our authentic identities.
The phenomenon, known as “Zucking,” within trans circles, is an especially poignant issue on account of the harassment and violence we often already face online, even when we aren’t outed by use of our dead names and incorrect pronouns, and it only becomes worse when we are exposed to a whole new host of individuals who can readily identify us as trans from nothing other than the mismatch between the gender of our birth-name, and the presented gender of our posts and photographs, not to mention that many of us who come out in adulthood also face the risk of active stalking, and in many cases, even attempted violence from unbalanced former friends, spouses, or family members who may seek revenge against us on the basis of unaddressed, transphobic feelings they may externalize towards us out of a failure to accept who we are as opposed to whom they would rather see us as. It’s also important to bear in mind that obtaining a legal name change as a trans individual is often a costly and time-intensive ordeal with court fees often totaling $500 or more, depending on the state in which the name change takes place, and which also generally requires a signed letter from an attending endocrinologist or gender therapist affirming not only the appropriate nature, but also the medically indicated necessity of the name change for the psychological health and well-being of the individual.
Luckily, for individuals who have yet to have been able to afford, or obtain a legal name change, Facebook claims to be willing to accept a variety of other non-state forms of identification which are more easily updated. According to the “Group 2” Approved Identifying Document section of their “Authentic Name” policy, outlining some of the alternative forms of identification which may be used, even a piece of mail matching the user’s Facebook name may be enough to rectify the issue, however this doesn’t really work very well in cases like my own, and others in which a transgender individuals identifying documents may be seemingly absolutely arbitrarily rejected several times in spite of matching their account information on file, without any adequate explanation, leaving victims to wonder if it may simply be because we are transgender, and the way in which the phenomenon seems to directly target trans accounts while largely ignoring cisgender (non-trans) accounts with actual false names would seem to lend credence to that possibility.
The concern, for many trans users, lies in how the policy is inconsistently applied, often seemingly for no reason other than to specifically dead name, or disable trans accounts, often with no actual recourse available for those who have been effected.
My own “Zucking” nightmare was precipitated by cyber-stalking by a party who had used the password to my iCloud account (which I had failed to update since coming out) in order to track my physical location using the “Find My iPhone” service provided for iCloud users by Apple. I did of course immediately update my password in order to put an end to any such attempts, however this did nothing to stop anyone seeking to harass me from simply reporting my Facebook account for using a “false name,” even in spite of it being the name that I use in my day to day dealings, at which point, the burden fell on me as a trans stalking victim to prove that I do in fact go by the name I use on my profile. The first time this happened, I had no recourse but to have my account dead named, which resulted in an overwhelming degree of confusion among my fans, and made me an easy target for a variety of parties with malicious intent, and I eventually had to close the account, which entailed the immediate loss of an audience of over 3,000 friends and fans I had accumulated over the course of 2 and a half years, and many of the most important communications I had made my peers during that time, not to mention all of the photos I’d uploaded, posts I’d made, and groups I’d joined. After creating a new account, I recently found myself in the same predicament again after being, and this time chose to respond by sending a piece of mail, as indicated in the “Group 2” documents section of the policy only to be told, in blatant opposition to the actual wording of the policy, that this suddenly was not an acceptable document. My follow-up course of action was to provide an actual photo ID showing my authentic name along with my date of birth, both exactly as they are listed on my profile. The response of the unnamed Facebook administrator then handling the issue was shockingly to resort to gas-lighting, simply sending seemingly auto-generated responses claiming that my identification did not match my account details, in spite of the fact that it did. I had to send the same ID back to two additional times, calling them to check the details again, and even tweeted directly to Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg himself in an attempt to call more direct attention to the issue in a system which really does little to allow for escalation when an anti-trans administrator may simply choose to take such an open opportunity to engage in discrimination, simply hoping that no one above them will be made aware of the issue.
On the third time sending the same ID, I made it clear that I would not tolerate further gas-lighting and discriminatory attempts without being forced to write on the issue. Unsurprisingly, it was on this fourth, and final attempt (including the piece of mail I had initially sent an image of), that my account access was finally restored, but this still doesn’t answer why my account was targeted in the first place, why that same ID was arbitrarily rejected the first two times I sent it, or why a piece of mail with my name on it, which is listed as acceptable identification according to the policy, was suddenly not acceptable to confirm my name as a transgender woman. It also most certainly doesn’t make up for the friends and fans I lost connection with the first time I was “Zucked” earlier this year, when I didn’t have any matching ID to confirm with, or offer any avenue to change the name on my old account, which was blocked from being changed permanently when it was “Zucked,” now that I have an updated ID.
I’m also far from the only victim. Many trans people have unexpectedly, and unfairly been forced to sacrifice their privacy, accounts, and even personal safety in similar incidents. Within the community, it’s been going on long enough to essentially be considered “old news,” by many who lack the means to draw additional attention to it, but the fact of the matter is that it’s only one of many ways, including a lack of action against cisgender (non-trans) accounts using nicknames, and even entirely false names, and a similar lack of action against accounts and pages which have been reported, even by large numbers of trans people for anti-trans and even Neo-Nazi hate speech, in which the unequal application of many of Facebook’s policies truly can begin to seem almost intentionally aimed at ostracizing trans individuals, and even encouraging anti-trans sentiments and actions from our perspective. I should hope that the site administration, including Zuckerberg himself would condemn such actions, and take a stronger role in providing a truly equal and safe place for what is a highly marginalized and at-risk demographic in terms of exposure to hate-based violence, but thus far, there has been no reliable, or consistent indication that the safety of trans people on the site will ever be taken seriously, or that the issue of the policy being essentially broken with regards to trans people, and even the many cis victims of stalking who may not be able to provide any of the forms of identification the current policy requires will ever be addressed, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the policy may even exist for no other reason than specifically to target trans people who either cannot meet the identification requirements, or may even simply find themselves being gas-lit, as I was, in the hopes that we’ll just give up.
As of the moment, the actual effect of the “Authentic Name Policy,” and the way in which it is frequently taken advantage of by anti-trans stalkers and harassers, is to essentially place many victims of circumstance, especially trans women and men, into a unique trap in which stalkers and other harassing parties can easily force us into a choice to either sacrifice our accounts, thereby, in many cases cutting us off from friends, family, and for those of us who make a living off the internet, our audiences, livelihoods, and economic security, or to resume using a name which technically does go against the spirit, and the letter Facebook’s policies, even in cases where it is still an individual’s legal name, by virtue of the fact that it does not accurately represent how we associate with our friends, families, and acquaintances in our daily lives. In addition to essentially painting a target on us for individuals from our past who wish to do us harm, this can also create an intense amount of confusion and backlash on the basis of an incorrect belief that an individual may have chosen to de-transition (an exceptionally rare occurrence), which can result in a flood of otherwise unnecessary social media activity, damage control, and gossip to grapple with over a perceived change in identity which has not actually occurred, the impact of which alone can be very damaging to an individual’s psychological well-being, and reputation on its own. The simple answer would be not to use Facebook, however, given the fact that many trans people are forced to rely heavily on online social networking for any sense of safety, as well as strength and connection in our community, as well as the fact that we often face absolutely legal employment discrimination, which can leave online work as our only option to make a living, choosing to simply abandon what could accurately be described as quite possibly the most popular social media and networking website in the world today, is simply not an option, but it may be the only one available to us until the situation is addressed. In the mean time, I would call upon those transgender individuals who are lucky enough to have not yet been impacted to begin calling awareness to the situation while they can to demand a solution, and for those cis individuals who claim to be our allies to recognize the privilege they have in not facing this issue, and use their seeming immunity to the issue to do the same.