Users weigh in on Facebook's new custom gender options

Facebook took a step toward making social media more gender-inclusive by introducing a custom gender option in the "About Me" section. What do users think?

Noah Berger/File/AP
In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, photo, workers from Facebook's health center gather near a banner promoting gay pride at the company's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters. The social media giant is adding a customizable profile option with about 50 different terms people can use to identify their gender.

On Thursday, Facebook announced it will offer more gender options for its users. How many? The gender binary has been replaced with more than 50 options.

“When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self,” says the site in a Facebook status announcing the change. “An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just ‘male or female.’ So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.”

Though Facebook didn’t share a comprehensive list of the new terms, early analysis have shown over 56 different options beyond male and female. The terms range from cisgender (a term that means identifying with the sex you were born with, as a way to steer away from reinforcing the idea that there is a “normal” gender) to FTM (female-to-male) to neutrois (neutral gender), as well as more well known terms such as transgender and androgynous. Users can also choose to display multiple genders.

Facebook also now prompts users to choose their preferred pronoun (“Wish her a happy birthday” versus “Wish him a happy birthday” versus “Wish them a happy birthday”).

Users can still choose what audiences see their gender, and this is only an option on the US-English language version of Facebook. Previously, users’ only options were male, female, or other.

On social media, the response was generally positive. Some encouraged even more change.

“I think it is great,” says Zak Sheldon in a Facebook comment to the Monitor. “Not only does it allow people (that feel they want/need to categorize themselves) the ability to label; but the simple fact and publicity of the matter starts discussion/ raises awareness of the gender possibilities of people regardless of views. Awareness/ discussion is a great step toward progressive acceptance!” 

“Only 50 options?” asks Jeff Henager in a comment on the Monitor’s Facebook page referring to the scope of the customization options.

Robert G. Lewis says gender is a bit more personal than what can be described on a social media site. “Needs a ‘None of your Business’ option,” he says in a Facebook comment to the Monitor.

On Friday, many Twitter users shared links to the announcement, adding “Yay!” or “Finally”. On the post where Facebook Diversity announced the change, some say it is inappropriate for Facebook to endorse gender ambiguity while some say it is a necessary step toward wider acceptance of gender diversity. Others say there is more that Facebook could do.

“There is still no option to identify my relationship with my queer/genderqueer child without selecting Son or Daughter, even after they changed their profile to neutral pronouns,” says one user, in a comment that had more than 166 likes.

There are at least 700,000 individuals who identify as transgender in the US, according to a study by the Williams Institute, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles. Facebook did not release numbers on how many people have edited their gender thus far.

The past year has marked a significant shift toward more acceptance for LGBT rights. Seventeen states have legalized gay marriage, and a Pew Research study published in June found 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage, while 72 percent say gay marriage is “inevitable." That being said, the largest opposition to gay marriage continues to be those who cite religion as a reason. Some 45 percent of Americans say they believe homosexuality is a sin, while 35 percent say that there is conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality.

"Of course Facebook is entitled to manage its wildly popular site as it sees fit, but here is the bottom line: It's impossible to deny the biological reality that humanity is divided into two halves - male and female," says Jeff Johnston, an issues analyst for Focus on the Family, an influential national religious organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., to the AP, though he adds the organization has “compassion” for those facing gender confusion.

The tech world, on the other hand, has tended to be socially liberal. For example, in response to anti-gay sentiment in Russia, Google recently adorned its homepage with a rainbow-colored Doodle and an excerpt from the Olympic charter emphasizing equality.

Facebook staffers say the decision wasn’t treated as a big deal.

"Really, there was no debate within Facebook about the social implications at all," said Alex Schultz, director of growth at Facebook to the AP. "It was simple: Not allowing people to express something so fundamental is not really cool, so we did something."

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