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
Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.