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Facebook reinstates historic image of Black trans man

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Facebook removed a photo of Zion Johnson that was posted by the GLBT Historical Society. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society
Facebook removed a photo of Zion Johnson that was posted by the GLBT Historical Society. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society  

Facebook has reinstated a photo it initially censored of a bare-chested transgender man for allegedly violating its "community standards on nudity" after it was called out by the GLBT Historical Society, but questions remain unanswered about the Menlo Park-based company's policies.

"We posted a historical photo of a bare-chested Black man and it was taken down by Facebook censors, leaving us to speculate about their reasoning," Terry Beswick, the executive director of the society, stated to the Bay Area Reporter. "How is that OK? What's next?"

On September 3, Facebook censored a post showing a recent acquisition from the society's art and artifacts collection: a shirtless portrait by photographer Anderson Clark of Zion Johnson, a Black trans man who was president of the Lou Sullivan Society.

On September 29, a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email to the B.A.R. that the photo has been reinstated.

"We mistakenly took down a post from the GLBT Historical Society, and have since restored it and communicated with them directly," Ruchika Budhraja wrote the B.A.R. "They reached out to us about the takedown, but they emailed people who are either no longer with the company or whose roles/responsibilities have shifted, so the right team didn't get their message and wasn't able to investigate and remedy."

When asked for his response, Beswick said that while that's nice, it's not enough.

"Yes, we got an email a couple hours ago saying exactly that," Beswick said in a phone call with the B.A.R. midday September 29. "We think that's great. I don't think it's a coincidence that it was reinstated after we sent out a press release and you started working on a story. It's been frustrating for us getting any response from them at all.

"We're a few weeks away from a major national election and if they don't have a real person looking at photos then what the heck is going on?" Beswick added. "What else is being removed without anyone fighting it? A lot of people won't see it now because it's been suppressed and moved down the Timeline, or whatever, but I don't see a change in policy. What is Facebook doing to help the trans community?"

Mark Sawchuk, the communications manager for the society, wrote to the B.A.R. that Facebook initially stated to them that it "due to the COVID situation, [it] no longer has the resources to review all such disagreements and we have no way to appeal the decision."

"We're committed to sharing our archival collections, including those documenting the lives of people of color and transgender people," Sawchuck wrote. "How can we do this when platforms like Facebook use algorithms that intentionally erase images of marginalized and underrepresented communities?"

Beswick wrote in the news release that "This wasn't the first time our posts have been flagged and it probably won't be the last time that our content is censored by the platform's frequently anti-LGBTQ algorithm and moderation."

According to Sawchuk, Facebook censored two advertisements featuring photos of bare-chested men in 2017 that the society posted to solicit volunteers for the Folsom Street Fair. That photo was reinstated after the society was able to contact the social media company. A similar incident took place in 2018 when the society was promoting an event.

Also in 2018, a photo posted to highlight transgender activism was also flagged. The latest incident was the first instance of censorship that did not involve an advertisement.

"We're up against a culture that is still relentlessly anti-LGBTQ, and social-media platforms that wield enormous power over the images, news and politics we consume," Beswick said. "When they make people invisible, it becomes easier to spread the fear and misinformation that quickly and frequently turn into violence."

The historical society is not alone in alleging that Facebook is discriminatory toward LGBTQ content. On September 24, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California issued a news release calling upon Facebook "to take responsibility and address disparities in the treatment of content by LGBTQ creators on its platform."

The ACLU of Northern California related a story about an advertisement being rejected as "sexually explicit" for featuring two women touching their foreheads. An experiment showed only the version of the ad featuring two people of the same sex touching foreheads was blocked.

"Facebook refused to say what algorithmic or human decisions led to the advertisement being removed and provided no explanation of why the test advertisements were accepted," the release stated. "The ACLU of Northern California is calling on Facebook to stop making excuses and start taking action. First, Facebook's Community Standards and advertising policies should be audited to determine if standards for 'adult' content disproportionately impacts the content of women and same-sex couples. Second, Facebook should be transparent and specific when blocking ads deemed to violate its policies. And third, Facebook should ensure that advertisers can contest removal of content and obtain a meaningful review."

In a statement, an attorney with ACLU of Northern California wrote that Facebook is harming marginalized communities.

"Facebook's blatant misgendering and censorship of trans people is one more example of how its content decisions disproportionately harm marginalized communities," Jacob Snow, an ACLU attorney, wrote to the B.A.R. "Facebook should stop silencing voices uplifting the resilience and joy of Black trans people and calling attention to the violence and injustice perpetrated against them."

Updated, 10/2/20: This article has been updated to indicate Anderson Clark took the photo of Zion Johnson.

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