Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg From a Queer Who Changed Their Name

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg

Hi. I'm Jade Sylvan. That's not the name I was born with. I chose my name because I wanted to be a writer and a performing artist and “Jennifer Schaibley” sucked for those things. I wrote and performed under Jade Sylvan for years while still going by my birth name at work and school. The separation was helpful to me at the time. I grew up in a very conservative, very Catholic part of the Midwest, and I've always written and performed about queer sexuality and controversial gender issues.

In Indiana in 2005, Jenny was a, smart, funny girl who wore sneakers and worked as an English tutor for low-income high school kids. Jade was an outspoken genderqueer publicly mouthing off about LGBTQ issues, pansexual attraction, and gender fluidity. There were several years during which half of the people I interacted with knew me as Jenny, and half as Jade. I had two social media accounts and two email addresses. I was not more myself one place vs. the other. Quite simply, it was safe to be Jade in some rooms, and safe to be Jenny in others. Aside from the overarching fear of bullying most queer people dealt with in my community, if I had been open about my artistic life at my job at the time, I would have risked losing it. I did not want to stop making my art. I loved it and thought it was important and it was ultimately what I wanted to do with my life. I also did not want to lose my job. I loved it and thought it was important and it was what was paying my rent.

I'm telling you all this because recently, Facebook has started blocking drag queens from their accounts until they use their “real names.” (The reasons behind this decision are dubious and statements from the company are vague, and quite frankly, clueless.)

You said a while back that “the days of having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end very quickly.... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

The thing is, young Jenny/Jade agreed with you – at least with that first part. I dreamed of a day when I could work with teenagers in the afternoon and stand naked on stage in the evening and only use one name. I did not want to live two separate lives, I wanted to become Jade, and eventually, when my artistic career picked up and I moved to liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, I did. I even went down the the courthouse and changed my name legally. (If your Internet gnomes ever send me a message asking to see my ID, it will be promptly provided.)

It's that second part that I have trouble with. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” This, to me, sounds like the words of someone who has absolutely no concept of what it's like to exist outside of mainstream culture. I'm not saying you're a bad person – most of what I know about you is from a biopic I watched half-drunk a few years ago mostly because Trent Reznor did the soundtrack for it – I'm saying you and
your personal social network view having more than one named identity as sketchy because you generally have not experienced discrimination and/or violence because of one or more of your identities.

I know, we queers talk about identity all the time. The thing is, identity is at the forefront of our lives because for most of us, there has always been someone in power trying to punish us for ours, invalidate ours, or take ours away. Not everyone who exists with separate identities wants, as I did, to become their AKA. I know people whose gender identity, name, and pronoun preferences change based on their situation, or simply based on what they feel like that day. These people deserve the right to interact with their community as the person they truly are from moment to moment. That is honesty. That is integrity.

I love Facebook because it allows me to create an intentional image of myself that I present to the world. Identity is not invalid if it is not legal. Forcing people to use their legal names against their will is not only dangerous, it's disrespectful. By doing this, you are denying them the right to be themselves, and, ultimately, destroying the safe and open online community your company says it wants to create.