When Facebook expanded its gender options early this February, many users were finally able to represent themselves authentically to the online community. The popular social network, which had previously required users to list themselves as either male or female, added a new “custom” gender option to accommodate individuals who do not identify with the traditional gender binary. This modification has proven incredibly validating for many queer users. By including non-normative gender identities, Facebook challenges the widely held notion that people who do not identify as male or female are simply “confused.” Given Facebook’s tremendous user base, this decision has the potential to substantially shift the way that we, as a society, think about gender and to move us away from the binary towards a more progressive view.
The vast array of gender choices offered by the “custom” option reflects a genuine effort on the part of Facebook to accommodate individuals for whom the questions of gender cannot be resolved by simply clicking “male” or “female.” Upon selecting a “custom” gender, users may choose from upwards of fifty different descriptors, including “pangender,” (a term preferred by some individuals who identify with both female and male gender identities) and “genderqueer” (preferred by individuals who do not entirely identify with either female or male identities). The sheer number of choices may seem excessive, particularly to people who are used to equating gender with biological sex in a simple male/female binary. Yet for many individuals, grappling with questions of gender identity is a complicated and very personal process. By providing an array of options, Facebook not only acknowledges the complexity of gender identity, but also gives users the power to represent themselves to others in terms that they feel comfortable with.
In addition to making a difference to many users’ experience of the site, Facebook’s inclusion of a custom gender option has implications as a public statement about the stability of the gender binary and the legitimacy of identities that lie outside of it. By allowing users to self-identify as transgendered or genderqueer, Facebook implies that these non-normative gender identities are just as “real” and as worthy of respect as male or female. This view calls into question the traditional idea that there are two sexes, that gender equals biological sex, and that individuals who do not identify with their biological sex are just “confused.”
In recent years, the most publicized endorsement of this position has come from social conservative groups such as Focus on the Family. In an interview with ABC, Jeff Johnson, the group’s issues analyst, responded to questions about Facebook’s change by asserting, “It’s impossible to deny the biological reality that humanity is divided into two halves—male and female.” He followed by expressing his “compassion” for those who mistakenly “believe they are the opposite sex.”
Yet though hyper-conservative and religious groups may provide the loudest opposition to taking more progressive views towards gender, skepticism about non-normative gender identities is found across party lines. Self-proclaimed liberal Bill Maher ridiculed Facebook’s change, calling the vast array of options “excessive,” and mocking ambiguous gender labels like “bi-fluid.” Additionally, while it may be easy to disregard Johnson’s words as the ideas of a religious radical, the notion that people must be either male or female is deeply entrenched in our culture. We draw clean-cut lines between masculinity and femininity everywhere, from public restrooms and locker rooms to acceptable modes of dress.
For many who do not identify with this binary, everyday experiences like using the restroom or shopping for clothes can induce a sense of otherness. I recently discussed this phenomenon with a close friend (she preferred to remain anonymous) who grappled with her own gender identity for a long time, and now identifies outside of this conventional binary. “For genderqueer people, it’s like you can’t even expect to have any kind of easy place in society because nearly every human experience is organized around the gender binary in some way,” she shared. “And that actually ends up being way more isolating than people realize when they are not an other to this binary.”
Moreover, many individuals who do not publicly present according to their biological sex find themselves mocked and harassed. My friend shared that this is particularly the case for transgendered individuals. “Trans people are still in a situation where how they identify is often questioned and ridiculed on a daily basis,” she told me. “I mean, I know a lot of trans people who get asked about their genitals from people who they have never met before on a daily basis.” Even after the gay rights movement has made tremendous strides, in many social circles, by removing the stigma from homosexuality, transgendered and androgynous individuals are still perceived as “other:” objects of curiosity and of ridicule.
I think that prejudice towards individuals outside the binary comes, in part, from our natural impulse to resist the unfamiliar. It is instinctive for human beings to be wary of strangeness, and to make snap judgments about things we cannot classify. Yet the idea that non-normative gender is something bizarre, even freakish, is also largely a product of our own social conditioning. Individuals with non-normative gender identities may be a relatively small percentage of the population. Even so, they are disproportionally absent from popular media. While more and more films and TV shows feature gay and lesbian characters, very few movies or TV series aimed at mainstream audiences portray transgendered or androgynous individuals, feeding the illusion that these gender identities do not really exist. Moreover, the gender bending that we do see on screen is almost always done for comedic effect: dressing or acting contrary to one’s biological sex is presented as absurd and hilarious. Given the picture of gender we get from Hollywood, it seems no accident that individuals outside the binary are so frequently laughed at, harassed, and alienated.
Raised in a society that is so deeply rooted in the idea of a gender binary, we are conditioned to believe that “humanity is divided into two halves—male and female,” and are uncertain what to make of those who will not fit this categorization. Yet this is precisely why I believe that Facebook has so much potential to change this dynamic. In addition to validation, Facebook is giving an overlooked community the right to visibility. As individuals outside of the gender binary choose to share their identities online, other individuals, who have only conceived of gender in terms of male and female, may be exposed to terms like genderqueer for the first time. More importantly, they will encounter these unfamiliar identities not as contrived ideas to be ridiculed, or as symptoms of confusion, but as legitimate gender identities, endorsed by a central platform of social life in the twenty-first century.