Saturday • 2015.04.25
Facebook Bans Disabled Trans Woman of Colour for Not Appearing Feminine Enough
If you follow social justice activism, then you may be fortunate enough to already be familiar with Kylie Brooks. Brooks is an activist, whose lived experience is as a black Deaf and disabled trans woman. Brooks routinely combines her stunning intersectional life experiences with brilliance and energy, sharing her thoughts and experiences online, tirelessly educating others about important issues.
Last year she spoke out on Facebook about a discriminatory practice of the Toronto Transit Commission that caused disabled trans people to be outed whenever they used WheelTrans, ultimately prompting the TTC to fix their policy. Today Brooks herself has been targeted, this time by Facebook itself: She faces what amounts to a permanent ban from the social network based on her gender identity and physical appearance.
“Kylie” is a woman’s name and her account identifies her as female. However, in her profile picture, she appears as a black person who would commonly be read as masculine, with short hair, and a bearded face. Brooks is trans, and someone who works for Facebook has looked at her profile photo and decided she doesn’t look “Kylie” enough.
“Your account has been suspended because it looks like you’re not using your real name,” says a box on the site when she tries to log in. Brooks is blocked from taking any action on Facebook until she can provide them with proof of her legal name: Something she is unable to do. Even though she’s been “Kylie” for several years, it’s not her legal name.
If she wants to get back on, Facebook will force Brooks to identify herself by a male-gendered name. That would totally disrespect and erase her trans identity on the social network, as well as undermine the great work she does communicating education about social justice issues which include trans.
She would change her legal name if she could, but unfortunately this is not an option. She lives on $758 per month. After rent, there’s not much money left over to live on… The government fees and associated legal costs in Ontario for a change of name amount to roughly two hundred dollars: Prohibitively expensive for Brooks; it would basically mean going without food. The application also requires complicated errands, and meetings with service providers, that would need to be facilitated for Brooks. For most people, a legal change of name is complicated. For Kylie Brooks, it is impossible.
Because she can’t show she’s legally “Kylie,” and since she can’t let them expose her prior name to the world, she will stay banned forever unless Facebook does something about this. This ban is more than a mere nuisance for Brooks, it will seriously impact her quality of life.
Brooks is heavily disabled. Because the world is not accessible enough to accommodate her, she doesn’t get to leave her home very often. When she does go out to socialize, she is limited to attending Deaf events, or events which provide ASL interpretation (a service in short supply due to the expense, and the low availability of qualified interpreters). Stuck at home, Facebook represents a significant aspect of her ability to interact and socialize with the outside world. Not only has she lost this vital communication channel, but she will lose access to local accessible events that only advertise through Facebook.
This ban is unjust, and represents a disproportionately negative impact on her life as it would for others. To cut her off just for being herself is cruel and unusual. Nobody should ever be judged or suspected based on the gender they appear to be. However, companies do this all the time: Last year it came to light that TD Bank routinely bans trans women from accessing their own bank accounts, because they “sound like men” on the phone.
Facebook’s “real-name” policy is a huge problem, and the controversy isn’t new. When this issue flared up in 2013, trans people and drag queens joined together to agree on something for the first time ever, when they asked Facebook to dispense with this discriminatory policy. More recently, Facebook turned the policy against indigenous people, banning them for using names in accordance with their First Nations heritages. Additionally, survivors of violence and abuse could have a legitimate interest in not using their legal names online, and may also be negatively affected by the policy. Chris Cox, CPO of Facebook, apologized in October but the policy has continued unabated since then.
In Brooks’s case, her trans-specific Facebook problems are exacerbated by the fact that she’s disabled. For one thing, she cannot shave her face—But that’s not the point. The point is that nobody should be required to conform to a particular standard of gender presentation to avoid being hounded off Facebook in the first place, and it’s pretty clear from the evidence that Brooks would not have been reported if she passed as a cis woman in photos. So what does this all mean?
While the “real-name” policy might have been intended to promote safety and integrity, it was very poorly thought out, and it’s clear that the enforcement of that policy is being done in a way that is cissexist, ableist, and racist. If it were a government, they would lose a human rights challenge. But a private, American corporation? We can only speak out, share widely, contact them repeatedly, and hope they decide to do the right thing.
Brooks has tweeted Facebook. No reply so far.