Facebook apologizes to LGBT community, clarifies names policy

Profiles can be under users' 'authentic' name, not necessarily their legal name

Facebook has apologized to drag queens and the larger LGBT community in the wake of controversy over the site's names policy, clarifying that users don't have to use their legal name.

Drag queens and other members of the LGBT community initially met with Facebook last month after some of their profiles were deleted and then restored, ostensibly because they weren't using their legal names. San Francisco-based Sister Roma, a member of the city's performance group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was one of the affected users. The incident sparked a debate over Facebook's names policies and how it enforces them.

Facebook messed up, said Chris Cox, chief product officer at the company. "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," he said Wednesday.

The accounts were deleted because they were flagged by a user as fake, Cox said. Facebook receives several hundred thousand fake name reports per week, and most of the time the reports target people engaging in abusive behavior, he said. Because the drag queen accounts were dropped into that larger bucket, Facebook didn't notice that the names didn't violate the company's policies, he said.

At least some of the controversy is likely due to a misunderstanding of Facebook's policies. Facebook has never required anyone to use their legal name, but people must use the "authentic" name they use in real life, Cox clarified.

"For Sister Roma, that's Sister Roma," he said. "For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that's Lil Miss Hot Mess."

Facebook will improve both the way it identifies fake accounts and customer service around accounts that get flagged. "We're already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors," Cox said.

It's not clear how the company will do that. For the past 10 years the firm has asked users of flagged accounts to verify their names by submitting some form of ID, like a gym membership or piece of mail, but that likely won't work for everyone. Facebook did not immediately respond to comment further.

The changes were outlined following a meeting on the matter Facebook held at its headquarters with activists Wednesday morning.

The changes represent strong signs of progress, said Mark Snyder, senior manager of communications at the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, who was part of Wednesday's meeting.

"It's clear Facebook has been grappling internally with how to handle this," he said in an interview following the meeting.

For instance, Facebook earlier this year started offering more gender-identification options.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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