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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”