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Facebook introduces choice of 50 genders – but why can't we write in our own?

The move has been acclaimed as a big step forward, but it was a deliberate and recent policy decision by Facebook to have imposed a gender binary, and the new options still don't give you the chance to write in your own.

This move has a context: it was only recently that Facebook have required you to specify a gender at all. Photo: Getty

Facebook have added a new “custom” gender selector, which is live for users in the United States. This is great news for people who, for a variety of reasons, did not want to pick “male” or “female”. My own friends feed erupted in mild excitement, with several of my friends even switching to the US interface just to see the choice.

Selecting the “custom” option lets you pick from around 50 more pre-defined options, with various combinations of trans*, as well as non-binary options including “agender”, “androgyne”, “bigender”, “gender non-conforming”, “neither”, “neutrois”, and “non-binary”. The choice of which pronouns the site should use to refer to you is also unlocked: this is orthogonal to the gender per se, you get to pick from “he”, “she”, or English’s second-person gender-neutral singular pronoun “they”. You can lock down your specific gender so that only your friends (or subgroups) can see it, but your preferred pronouns are public – presumably for reasons of grammar in messages such as “wish [them] a happy birthday!”

So far, so good.  This move has already been acclaimed as a great step forward. But there is a context. It was a deliberate and recent policy decision by Facebook to have imposed a gender binary. Historically Facebook had allowed you to not specify a gender, and the requirement for everyone to pick one of “male” or “female” was introduced only in 2011, presumably to help target Facebook’s highly-gendered advertising.

And this is not and should not be sold as some amazing technical innovation. Despite the fact that computers work in binary, they were never binarist and having three possible values in a database column is just as easy as two. Other social networking sites have kept this feature: Livejournal has a “not specified”/“other” option. If I undust my Google Plus account I find that it has an “other” option, and the ability to privacy-lock the field, a surprisingly progressive policy given their toxic stance on “real names” (i.e. those backed with government-issued ID). Twitter doesn’t ask – its user interface doesn’t need use pronouns – and Myspace has an “Unspecified”. If we go even further back than that, back into the deep old internet, we’ll find the old acronym-bearing proto-social-networking tools known as BBSes, MUDs and MUSHes often supported them – indeed, LambdaMOO was known for popularising the Spivak gender-neutral pronouns (e/em/eir).

Clearly Facebook have made up for lost time in providing people with 50 new genders, a choice that has distracted rather from the core fact that the “them” option is a restoration rather than an innovation. It might be wondered why they do not simply allow free-form text entry here. PinkNews’s piece contains the claim that

To prevent abuse, the new system does not allow people to create their own gender identities, limiting them to a pre-selected list

which is curious given that religion and politics fields already allow the entry of arbitrary text.  And although 50 looks like a big number, the choices are broad but not exhaustive and are Western-oriented – for example, there is no entry for hijra, now recognised by the Bangladeshi bureaucracy as a third gender. I will be interested to see how this feature rolls out through the various different language interfaces, particularly those – like French – where no gender-neutral pronouns exist.  If I pick “they”, what will my French friends see?

Despite my cynicism and an apparent cultural bias (which I’m sure will be swiftly rectified now it has been pointed out) this is actually a pretty good implementation. It’s set a high bar for other social networking sites, and nobody else entering the field has any excuse to do anything less than a Male/Female/Unspecified/Other selection.