Artwork by Charlie Meyers

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After a week without access to his Facebook and Instagram business accounts, Charlie Meyers finally got them back on Thursday morning, after days of a Billy Penn reporter pressing the social media platform for comment.

When Meyers first lost access to his accounts last Thursday, he didn’t sleep all night.

The stakes were high for the 33-year-old West Philly resident. Meyers runs a disability arts account, a fitness account, and an art account where he sells his original paintings. Since a nearly fatal 2014 bike accident left Meyers with physical disabilities, virtual sales have become his bread and butter.

But last week, Facebook flagged all three of his business accounts due to an alleged identity verification issue. The social media giant’s support staff said he’d have to send them a legit form of ID to verify his name and get back access to the business accounts.

“I can’t do without access to these tools,” Meyers said last week. “85% of my income comes from Instagram and Facebook.”

Problem is, he doesn’t go by the legal name listed on his driver’s license. He’s trans, and he hasn’t yet undertaken the lengthy and expensive legal name change process — so almost all his identification lists his dead name.

Communication with Facebook’s automatic chat service and real representatives reviewed by Billy Penn showed Meyers was repeatedly asked to provide documentation. He sent over a lease, a medical record, a screenshot of a banking statement. Sometimes, he’d get approved — then hours later, get another verification request.

Spokesperson Valentina Vojkovic said Facebook gives users the opportunity to “describe their special circumstances when verifying their name.”

His account was finally restored early this morning, after a week of back and forth. Meyers said a Facebook representative couldn’t explain why.

“Although yes, I’m happy for my circumstances, it’s really my intention to go forward with finding out if their policy has changed permanently,” Meyers said. “And if it hasn’t, how to pursue a permanent change for other trans people.”

Drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess, who has lost access to her accounts multiple times in the last decade, said that’s basically the only effective solution: “Go to the media and make a big deal about it.”

It’s been an issue for the platform for over a decade. There are several reasons people might not want to put their legal name out there, but LGBTQ people have been at the forefront of the effort to get policies updated.

In 2014, a handful of San Francisco drag queens had their legal names revealed on their drag pages — or their pages deleted altogether — at the same time. They protested, and got Facebook to make changes.

“We won some real victories,” Lil Miss Hot Mess told Billy Penn. “But also, it’s clearly still a problem they didn’t fully fix.”

Philly artist Meyers said he got random calls and messages from Facebook employees who tried to help — including from a “supervisor” named Pearl, who identified herself as “within this beloved community.”

Pearl recommended he change his name to the one listed on his ID (his dead name) and then change it back after the 60-day verification process. For Meyers, who was assaulted earlier this year for using a public men’s restroom, outing himself publicly is dangerous.

“I’ve been stalked and harassed online by random trolls who find out I’m trans,” he said. “I have had my profiles reported over and over again. Now they’re asking me to have my Facebook out me.”

But losing the roughly $1k that Meyers makes via online sales each month is dangerous too: “It’s the only way I’ve been able to feed myself.” Legal name changes are often cost prohibitive. In Philly, the process can cost almost $1,000.

After Facebook’s name verification system was called out as transphobic in 2014, the company issued a public apology and updated the process. The platform now allows users to confirm their name with more casual documentation — like mail, school records, transit cards and library cards. Owned by Facebook, Instagram sometimes also requires name verification. Some other social networks, including Twitter and TikTok, skip the verification process in the name of inclusivity.

Lil Miss Hot Mess, who asked to be identified by her stage name only, said she still has at least one person a month come to her saying they’re locked out of their Facebook account.

She’s seen the same thing happen to Indigenous people who have nouns or apostrophes in their names, or domestic abuse survivors, who want to use a different name online to protect themselves.

How could Facebook fix it? Allow pseudonyms, she suggests. Offer an option where 5 to 10 friends could vouch for someone’s identity. Set up a specific customer service line for LGBTQ people and other marginalized identites, staffed by people who are experienced with these issues.

“So much of queer and trans activism is around the ability to self-identify and speak to your own authentic truth,” said Lil Miss Hot Mess. “To have that taken away from you is a form of, not only discrimination, but really violence. It can open people up to dangerous situations.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...