Facebook has restored a picture of a bare-chested Black transgender man it had removed from the GLBT Historical Society’s page.
The San Francisco-based historical society had issued a press release saying it “strongly condemns” the removal. Facebook officials now say the removal was in error.
The historical frequently posts photographs and images of materials in its extensive archival collections to its accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. On September 2, its communications manager, Mark Sawchuk, scheduled a post on Facebook and on Instagram for the next morning. The post included an image of a recent acquisition in the society’s Art and Artifacts Collection: a framed black-and-white portrait of Zion Johnson, a Black transgender man who served as president of the Lou Sullivan Society. In the portrait, by Anderson M. Clark, Johnson is shirtless and looking directly at the camera.
Within half an hour after the Facebook post was published, Sawchuk received a notification that the post had “violated Facebook community standards” for nudity and had been taken down. The notification also said the society could click “agree” to accept the decision or click “disagree” to initiate a review. Sawchuk clicked “disagree.” Then a second notice said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook is not reviewing all disputed posts and that the matter is closed. Sawchuk’s Facebook account has been placed on “warning” status. However, an identical post on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was allowed to stay up.
The society emailed several Facebook employees who had assisted it with appeals previously but received no answer. The Advocate sought comment from Facebook and received this reply:
"We mistakenly took down a post from the GLBT Historical Society, and have since restored it and communicated with them directly. 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."
The Advocate checked the historical society's Facebook page, and the post is indeed back, with the September 3 date.
Posts previously removed from the society’s social media pages included advertisements for volunteers at the Folsom Street Fair in 2017, one on Facebook and one on Instagram, depicting bare-chested leather men but not including nudity or suggestive language. The ads were reinstated after an appeal. Then, in August 2018, the society was unable to promote a Facebook post publicizing an upcoming program about the history and current state of transgender rights activism. The most recent incident, however, involved a content-based post, not an ad.
“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,” GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick said in the press release. “Making LGBTQ life visible is central to our mission. 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. When they make people invisible, it becomes easier to spread the fear and misinformation that quickly and frequently turn into violence.” The Advocate has now sought further comment on the restoration of the photo.
Of the censored photograph, Johnson wrote, “One reason I participated in this project was to extend the visibility of transgender men. Especially for people of color, I thought it was important for other people of color to know we exist in their own communities; this is not a white European concept ... It’s an image that shows different shapes, sizes and colors of the trans experience.”