Wahoo! Facebook Now Allows You To Choose A Gender Besides Male or Female

To maintain my crochety curmudgeon "Never happy with ANYTHING" status, I'm required to tell you that these changes aren't perfect.

Feb 13, 2014 at 5:30pm | Leave a comment

Remember how I wrote a while back about how Facebook's gender settings are borked, making it impossible for gender nonconforming people to sign up without lying about their identity? Well, all that's about to change, starting today, with some brand-new shiny options unrolled to help people more accurately describe themselves when signing up for the service. 

To maintain my crochety curmudgeon "never happy with ANYTHING" status, I'm required to tell you that these changes aren't perfect, and my first thoughts on reading them weren't about how awesome they were, but about how limited they were. That said, these changes represent a concrete, positive, and real first step -- and many of them are very carefully and wisely implemented, showing that Facebook has taken feedback, criticism, and commentary into account. 

So let's plunge into how gender on Facebook works now

Ye olde gender dropdowne now offers a third category, for "custom." This opens up a text box which allows you to input one or more terms describing your gender. 

There's a catch, though: you have to use one of the Facebook Approved(TM) terms, which varies between 10 and 50, depending on which news source you believe. It would appear that the answer is closer to the fifty end of things, given the number of options I saw when I created a fake Facebook account to play around with the gender menu. 

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You can also select whether you want male, female, or they/their-style pronouns. Facebook clearly isn't ready to roll out coding support for the broad variety of preferred gender pronouns out there, but this is, again, a start. Hopefully common pronoun sets will make their way in soon, along with the more uncommon (*coughs*). 

Next up? A super-cool feature: the option to control your gender visibility. For trans people who aren't ready to come out yet, for people who want to protect themselves from bigoted jerks, for those who don't want to advertise their gender to the world, this provides a great option.

Whether you're a trans woman seeking a job who's acutely aware that your gender can make you a target for discrimination or a trans boi figuring out who you are and not wanting to deal with your conservative relatives, the ability to control who can see your gender is huge. 

As a user pointed out on the Facebook Diversity announcement, though, the site hasn't rolled out support for describing relationships to nonbinary and other gender nonconforming people. Aunts, uncles, moms, dads, daughters, sons...part of the problem here, though, is the fact that society is having trouble defining these relationships.

Terms like "child" and "parent" can seem cold to some, while in other cases, there is no neutral way to describe a relationship: how do you describe the genderqueer sibling of your mother? They aren't your uncle or aunt! 

For that matter, how do you get around the privacy issue? If a genderqueer kid has eir visibility set to public, it's easy to describe eir relationship to eir parents. But what about a neutrois adult who doesn't want family members knowing? How should that person be connected to, say, the children of xyr brother? 

These changes are a huge first step, and hopefully Facebook has more planned. They're also a radical reflection of how far the gender justice movement has come in recent years. Ten years ago, when Facebook was in its infancy (seriously, it was founded on 4 February, 2004), it was inconceivable to have more than two genders on the dropdown menu. In the last five years, the site has experienced tremendous pressure to change that, and today, we finally see the fruits of the hard work of activists, advocacy organizations, and others. 

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It's going to mean a great deal to Facebook users who can finally log in today and select the correct gender identification. More than that, it's going to mean a great deal to future users as Facebook expands its options, irons out bumps in the code, and makes itself a more accepting place. 

Nonbinary and other gender nonconforming people are becoming increasingly visible, with a movement that's going through its own renaissance of awareness, education, and battles large and small. Picking the right gender on a social network might not seem like a big deal, but it is -- imagine having to lie about who you are to interact with friends, colleagues and people you love.

For that matter, imagine how this small change may inspire similar changes in attitude in locations like doctor's offices, where forms often reflect antiquated notions about gender and identity. 

Facebook's support for its users is a statement that we are entering a new era when it comes to talking about and conceptualizing gender, and it's a hugely positive sign. With visibility, after all, comes increased danger, too, and the more people we have working in solidarity with us, the better we will be. 

This news comes in the midst of a mainstream media assault on transgender women, a bitter reminder that the trans community as a whole isn't anywhere near social acceptance. But baby steps are a good start in the right direction, and while I am a person who prefers giant leaps, even I have to admit that sometimes, all you can do is shuffle forward, centimeter by centimeter, gaining ground and holding it. 

Here's to the liberation of all my trans siblings...and to more good changes ahead.