It’s Complicated

Have you ever felt misunderstood? Like you wish other people could see who you are beneath your skin? Facebook is giving its US and UK users an opportunity to help others in their social network do just that. Facebook has changed its gender options from the male/female binary by adding a customizable other category to its list of gender choices.

What is gender and how does it differ from sex? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. To put it another way: male and female are sex categories, while masculine and feminine are gender categories.

Facebook has added 50 new options to their customizable gender options category. No longer are the options simply male or female, but now include options such as androgynous, transgender, intersex, cisgender, gender fluid, and neither. Nor are you restricted to choosing only one identifier. If you self-identify as Androgynous, Transgender, and Genderqueer – you can choose that.

This latest change is not the first time that Facebook has updated its options to be more inclusive of the LBTQI community. Relationship options, such as in a domestic partnership and in a civil union were added in 2011. The network also updated its marriage timeline icons to include depictions of same-sex couples in 2012.

The Williams Institute, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that there are at least 700,000 individuals in the U.S. who identify as transgender, an umbrella term that includes people who live as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

Masen Davis, executive director of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, said it may be hard for some people to understand the importance of having the ability to select from multiple genders online. But he said many transgender people will be thrilled with the change.

“We applaud Facebook for making it possible for people to be their authentic selves on line,” he said.

The transgender movement has become much more organized and outspoken, demanding the civil rights and respect already sought by gay activists. The transgender umbrella has been growing well beyond transsexuals to encompass a wide variety of gender identities.

Facebook made the changes after years of lobbying from users, some who started Facebook pages to petition for the change.

Some people question the label changes, but for different reasons. Some feel that gender identity is black and white, cut and dried, male and female and the labels are unneeded. “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,” said Jeff Johnston, an issues analyst for Focus on the Family, an influential national religious organization based in Denver. “Those petitioning for the change insist that there are an infinite number of genders, but just saying it doesn’t make it so. That said, we have a great deal of compassion for those who reject their biological sex and believe they are the opposite sex.”

Others suggest that the better option would be to do away with gender labels altogether. The feeling is that one has no need to choose or advertise gender identity lies on the spectrum. Some GSC students have been overheard repeating a commonly held belief “It isn’t anyone’s business how someone self-identifies, it’s personal.”

“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,” said Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who worked on the project and is herself undergoing gender transformation, from male to female. While she is monitoring the system for software issues, she will also be changing her identity from Female to Transwoman.

“All too often transgender people like myself and other gender nonconforming people are given the 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 the site and specify to all the people I know what my gender is.”

As society changes, our language evolves to reflect those changes. “Really, there was no debate within Facebook about the social implications at all,” said Alex Schultz, director of growth. “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.”

If you would like to change your own information, follow these steps:

  1. Sign in, head to your own Timeline.
  2. Hit the “Update Info” link in the bottom, right-hand corner of your cover photo.
  3. Click the “About” option.
  4. Find the “Basic Information” section and hit the “Edit” button.
  5. In the “Gender” drop-down menu, choose “Other” and start typing your preferred term. The Associated Press has a full list of the options on its Web site. Users have the option to make their gender choices private.
  6. Users also have the option of picking the pronoun they want the networks to use in posts about them: he, she, or they. (Grammar police: calm down!) The preferred pronoun you pick is public information.
  7. That’s it!




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