This week, Facebook unveiled a new feature: Users on the English site can now select a custom gender. Male and female are there, but there is now a “custom” choice, which produces a drop-down list that offers options like trans* male or female, bi-gender and pangender. In addition, users may now choose which gender pronoun they would like Facebook to use: he, she or they—English does not have a singular gender-neutral pronoun, so “they” is often used as a substitute.
Facebook consulted five major transgender and gay rights organizations in choosing which options to offer for users. There are, officially, 58 different options. The options will eventually roll out in other languages, too. An issue will be finding appropriate terms in those languages Facebook wants to offer. English now has many terms, which allow people to express a wide range of gender options, but many languages are not as flexible or as politically correct.
Since the beginning, Facebook has tried to stay up-to-date with its main clientele—young people. LGBTQ rights are a popular issue among Facebook’s key demographic, and this move shows the company’s desire to reflect the opinions and feelings of its users. The wider gender options imply Facebook’s support of LGBTQ rights and its willingness to tackle hot-button issues. The company has tended to be more liberal and left-leaning, which reflects its beginnings on a college campus not unlike Vassar. One can only hope that this might encourage other companies and social networks to follow its lead.
In the United States, LGBTQ rights have become one of those issues used even in presidential campaigns. Currently, 17 states have legalized gay marriage, and that number will almost certainly rise in the next few years. Gender and sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace has gained significant attention, and companies are adjusting their policies to accommodate. Perhaps one day these policies won’t need to be enforced, but for now, they help to prevent workplace discrimination.
Possibly one of the most visible elements of LGBTQ activism and progress is from entertainment, which helps present nationally some aspect of LGBTQ acceptance. Recently, television shows have started to feature more well-rounded lesbian and gay characters. The Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” has been praised for portraying realistic LGBTQ characters. Disney also showed a same-sex couple on one of its television shows for the first time, and in the movie “Frozen” there is a minor character who is gay (supposedly). Whether or not these examples truly represent the LGBTQ community, they are at least markers of progress.
At Vassar, sometimes it’s possible for people to forget that the outside world is less tolerant than our community, but bias incidents like those last semester bring that reality home. I have little doubt that there will be members of the Vassar community who take advantage of Facebook’s new gender options, and hopefully many of those people feel that these options allow them to more accurately express who they are. However, as pointed out by The Guardian, the options still lean heavily on the gender binary and the two default options are still male and female with these options hidden under “custom.” However, this is the first roll-out, and undoubtedly, the layout will change in the coming months. If anything, Facebook is known for constantly changing things up.
Whether or not Facebook has made the best decision it could have over this, at least it‘s demonstrating a willingness to adapt to the reality of society. I think Facebook should be commended for trying and at least giving another option besides male and female. That’s more than what most websites can say. Whether you agree or disagree with it all, try to remember that nobody is perfect, and something is better than nothing. Change is slow, but every step matters in reaching the ultimate goal of a more tolerant society.
—Lily Elbaum ’16 is an international studies major.