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.

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.

This move has a context: it was only recently that Facebook have required you to specify a gender at all. Photo: Getty
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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.