Facebook users, others react to gender options

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 13, 2014

Facebook announced Thursday that its 159 million U.S. users now have dozens of options for completing the gender question on their profiles. The social media giant has been working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups to expand the choices beyond male and female. The result: a “custom” option that lets users pick from about 50 terms, including transsexual, androgynous and intersex.

The Associated Press asked Facebook users and others for their reactions:

Jay Brown, 35, of Maryland, changed his gender on Facebook to Trans Male on Thursday once the option became available.

“Looking at my Facebook profile, people see photos of my 3- and 5-year-olds, my love for running and that my wife had a birthday yesterday,” Brown told the AP. “They saw a dad, a runner, a husband. The `male’ selection was right but it wasn’t all there was to me. Today, Facebook is letting me bring more of my identity to the table.”

Jeff Johnston, issues analyst for Focus on the Family, an influential national religious organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., said just because people lobbying for the change say there are an infinite number of options, that’s not true.

“Of course Facebook is entitled to manage its wildly popular site as it sees fit, but here is the bottom line: It’s impossible to deny the biological reality that humanity is divided into two halves – male and female,” Johnston told the AP.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the array of options represents an important cultural shift symbolizing the progress transgender rights activists have made in educating their fellow Americans.

“At a time in which transgender people still face high rates of bullying, disrespect, harassment, and violence, this welcome change is another step in the recognition of transgender and gender non-conforming people. As one of the most visited sites on the Internet, it’s a significant sign of progress to have the realities of transgender and gender non-conforming people reflected on the platform.

Chiyerre Echie and Jasmine Jefferson are both 18-year-old freshmen at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Both are from Memphis and say they are occasional users of Facebook.

Interviewed at lunch on campus Thursday afternoon, they said they don’t know anyone who is transgender, but they approve of the additional options on Facebook.

“I think it’s progressive. It needed to happen since there are so many different options for people nowadays,” Jefferson said.

Echie said, “I agree, I guess, if it makes people happy to be able to come out in public and say, `This is who I am.”‘

Shiv Pruthi is a 20-year-old junior at Loyola University in Chicago, says he’s been a regular user of Facebook since high school. Speaking from campus Thursday afternoon, Pruthi said he doesn’t know anyone who is transgender, but it wouldn’t stop him from accepting a Facebook request from someone who identified themselves as something other than male or female.

“I probably would be kind of shocked at first. But if they did choose (a different option to identify themselves by), I would support that. Good for them, not being afraid to put that on a public social interaction site,” Pruthi said.

Elizabeth Garcia, 48, of Miami, said that while she has friends who might want to use one of the new gender options, she wishes Facebook had left the choices at male and female.

“I think it’s too much,” Garcia said while walking with her daughter (who doesn’t mind the change). “It doesn’t bother me what people are or do, but they want to give too much information.”

Selecting the word “transgender” in a dropdown box isn’t quite so simple for some trans people, who may prefer to continue using the “male” or “female” designation, said Carrie Davis, 54, who works at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City.

“A transgender woman who is seen by the world as a woman isn’t going to want her primary identity to be `transgender woman,”‘ Davis said. “She’s probably going to want to be seen, most of the time, as a woman.”

Since the term transgender often implies some sort of medical intervention, some people may not want that information to be shared with their Facebook community, Davis said.

“I think the challenge here is that these words are loaded words,” said Davis, who lives in Brooklyn with her partner. “So they may be accurate for some people and not accurate for others.”

Mike Munoz, 27, of Boulder Creek, Calif., was reached after he posted a comment on the AP’s Facebook page. He said he thinks the feature “is a great one to offer” but lamented that people feel the need to label themselves at all.

“Purely by categorizing yourself with these gender labels you are restricting yourself from personal growth, you paint yourself into corner so to speak. The amount of options does seem a little overkill, but it’s understandable as you wouldn’t want to leave any group or individual out. I am grateful Facebook has implemented these changes and hope they’re beneficial to those who will be using them; who knows, maybe I’ll switch to something more appropriate to my liking.”

Rachel Kinsey, 25, a nursing student at the University of Texas at El Paso, said she was less likely to accept people as Facebook friends if she saw they identified with a gender other than male or female.

“I have more conservative views. I don’t think people need more than male or female. It doesn’t bother me because things have changed … if that s what makes them happy,” Kinsey said.

Tajei Harper, 20, another University of Texas student, had no problem with the change but found the sheer number of options eye-opening.

“They said 50? I can’t think of 50!” Harper said. “But it’s all the same to me, if it makes people happy.”

Dr. Scout, 48, directs an advocacy program called The Network for LGBT Health Equity and raced to change his Facebook profile on Thursday from male to the option of “trans” with an asterisk after it. He said the change sends a powerful message to young gender-nonconforming people.

“For many of us, when we see bathrooms, forms, or Facebook profiles, not seeing any option for us just reinforces this “other” status. This consistent reinforcement of how “other” you are is a very real burden on our sense of self and on our health. My strongest praise to Facebook for realizing not everyone fits into two boxes, and realizing everyone should be able to fit somewhere,” he said.

Laurel Ramseyer, 50, of Massachusetts, said she kept her gender blank because the Facebook options did not include her preferred term: human.

“Having the first decision point as a choice between male, female and what is essentially `other’ is still stigmatizing,” Ramseyer said in an email. “You could place male and female at the top of an otherwise alphabetical master list if you want to appease the majority who may be offended to be forced to pick their way through a list like we `custom’ folk are forced to do. It’s probably too late now, but it shouldn’t be called `custom’ if the user can’t create their own term. It’s simply an elongated list that someone(s) else came up with.”


Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Lisa Leff in San Francisco, Martha Mendoza in Menlo Park, Calif., Christine Armario in Miami, Meghan Barr in New York, Donna Bryson in Denver, Kerry Lester in Chicago, Travis Loller in Nashville, and Joan Carlos Llorca in El Paso.