Facebook Unveils Custom Gender Options

Facebook users will no longer be forced to choose between a male or female gender on their profile, as the social media giant has added a host of gender identification options to patrons’ profile settings.

By entering a profile’s “about” page and choosing “custom” in the list of gender options, users can choose from 50 gender labels such as transgender, cisgender, two-spirit, gender fluid, intersex, and androgynous. The option to choose gender-neutral pronouns such as “their” and “they” instead of “him” or “her” is also offered.

Vincent Villano, director of communications for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the change represented a more accepting culture.

“We welcome the change,” Villano said. “Facebook’s new options represents an important cultural shift, creating one more space where transgender people can be themselves without shame, fear or limitation.”

Villano added that those who are transgender — when the gender identity or expression does not match the assigned sex — and others in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and ally (LGBTQIA) community still faced privacy concerns that Facebook must address.

“Facebook, for example, does not require user approval to be added to Groups, which was responsible for outing some LGBT people to friends and family. A friend of NCTE’s who manages an online discussion board for trans people reports that some people who’ve had to keep their identities secret using two separate accounts have been outed by Facebook’s facial recognition system. So while Facebook’s new gender options is an important change, Facebook should also commit to assessing how their systems truly respect the privacy of transgender people,” he said.

Brian Wells — academic advisor for Youngstown State University’s Bitonte College of Health and Human Services and adviser for YSUnity, the university’s only LGBTQIA organization — said the move will doubtlessly benefit Facebook, but it will also encourage gender diversity.

“In the one sense, there is no doubt that these are always opportunities to garner attention and especially now that they are a publicly traded company, the more attention they have the more likely they are going to make money,” Wells said. “It is a great move that, from at least the view of the people I know, has been very well received because now more than ever, at least within modern times, there is a greater diversity as far as gender goes.”

Wells said he would like to see such options evolve beyond the realm of Facebook and become part of daily practices.

“I truly hope to see some of these changes actually happening as far as college applications or other forms, you know going to the doctor’s office. It would be really great to see some of these go beyond Facebook and into everyday life,” he said.

Wells said, overall, universities seem to serve as an accepting environment for transgender people, pointing toward YSU’s 2007 addition to its non-discriminatory policy.

“For so long in our society, there has been the need to label and categorize people, but there is so much opportunity for people to just be themselves, especially on a college campus where you can do that exploration and start to understand who you are,” he said. “YSU actually adopted, as part of our non-discrimination policy, gender identity and/or expression. When that happened back in 2007, we were one of only — I think it was four schools in the state of Ohio and one of only about 150 nationally.”

Tim Bortner, vice president of YSUnity, said YSU has certainly grown more accepting and inclusive of transgender people, but there is still more efforts to be made.

“There is a few gender neutral bathrooms on campus. I think there is about three or four, but there weren’t any at one point. There is one in the [Andrews Student Recreation and Wellness Center] right now. They are starting to do a little bit here and there, but I don’t think it is enough. I think there should be one in each building. Because there was a student a couple years back that used to have to go home to go to the restroom — drive all the way home in between classes then drive back — because that person didn’t feel safe in the bathrooms on campus,” Bortner said.

Bortner also emphasized the importance of education in moving forward.

“I think people need to educate themselves — I really do. Create awareness, that is what our organization is about, educating people on this campus,” he said. “Just look it up; research it; know about it because it is obviously something happening in this world. And, you want to know about it so you don’t say the wrong thing because it is very hurtful when someone says the wrong thing to someone, whether you mean to or not.”

Wells participates in the Safe Zone project, an initiative that strives to make campus safer for LGBTQIA students with awareness training provided to student leaders and faculty. He spoke on the methods he uses in teaching, in particular, a diagram known as the genderbread man.

“Gender is in your brain and sex would be within your sexual organs and expression is how you outwardly express to other people.” Wells said. “In safe zone training, we always talk about the idea that if you are not sure, the best thing to do is to be friendly, be kind, be polite and ask, ‘is there a particular word you would prefer that I use to identify your gender, or do you happen to use gender neutral pronouns?’”

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