Facebook’s New Gender Options

Review February 15, 2014 1:30 pm

Facebook gender ID options

On Thursday, Facebook announced the launch of 50+ gender identifier options that users can select from, as well as three preferred pronoun choices (her, him, or them). This change to user preferences made official what many users had been previously experimenting with or “working around” on the site.

Alex Schultz, director of growth at Facebook, was quoted stating “Really, there was no debate within Facebook about the social implications at all. It was simple: Not allowing people to express something so fundamental is not really cool so we did something. Hopefully a more open and connected world will, by extension, make this a more understanding and tolerant world.” Of course, the cynic could say this is simply the company doing some consumer anthropology and wanting to expand its user base–and collect further user data while at it. But it’s worth noting that the idea sprung from just a few people at Facebook, not the work of some officially coordinated marketing research group.

The new options were the quiet work of a small group of Facebook employees, including software engineer Brielle Harrison. In this AP article, Harrison explained:

“There’s going to be a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing, but for the few it does impact, it means the world… All too often transgender people like myself and other gender nonconforming people are given this binary option, do you want to be male or female? What is your gender? And it’s kind of disheartening because none of those let us tell others who we really are,” she said. “This really changes that, and for the first time I get to go to the site and specify to all the people I know what my gender is.”

I’m intrigued by the use of predictive text in this case: Facebook did not in fact publish a list of all of the options available to users, but used predictive text to allow users to begin typing their preferred gendered identifier. The author of a Slate article noted there seemed to be a total of 56 options — 58 if you include the older “male” and “female” options. It’s a long list but of course not comprehensive, and certainly culturally situated: identifiers like “hijra,” “kathoey,” “lesbi,” or “dee,” for example, while widely used, are not available (yet).

This change to Facebook user preferences made official and expansive what many users had previously worked around–as in this hack to change the binary (1=female, 2=male) to “0.” Or you could be an early joiner: When I was 17 years old, in 2005, I signed up for Facebook as soon as I had declared a college to attend.  I declined to state a gender at that time and to this day my Facebook profile makes statements about me as “them” or “their.” Of course, the site is still generally ciscentric: first-time users must still select male or female on the sign-up page; users cannot select different gender options for members of their networks (e.g. “son” and “daughter” remain the only relationship options for parents); and female/male are still the default options.

But as this Huffington Post writer noted, the changes provide a small and valuable teaching moment for gender & queer politics. And it reminds us how this is such a small drop in the bucket compared to the massive structural violence (abuse, hate crimes, suicide, homelessness, etc) faced by Trans* folks. Paraphrasing a friend, let’s not pretend that any tech company is the savior here and that this is any major victory for the queer community. Just like legalization of marriage, it’s a symbolic “pat-on-the-back” issue–and while it’s wonderful, there is still a lot of work to do.

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