Facebook must do more to become a haven of gender equality

As the social networking giant introduces 56 new gender options, activist Sarah Gibson explains why it needs to go further

Facebook must do more to become a haven of gender equality
20 February 2014

I have to admit that I rather enjoy using Facebook and like a lot of people I probably spend far too much time connected to what is the centre of my virtual presence.

Therefore I wholeheartedly welcome Facebook’s latest move to provide more gender options for you to pick from, but with the vast amount of praise being heaped upon Facebook for this, you might be mislead into believing that the social networking site is now a haven for people of all gender identities. 

At the heart of Facebook is people and, unfortunately, they don’t tend to leave their prejudices on the real world side of their computer monitors.

If you delve into the darker areas of Facebook you’ll find thousands of pages, groups and photos all containing transphobic slurs and encouraging others to belittle or attack trans people.

Even Facebook’s own post about these new options has become targeted by people aggressively denouncing the move and trans people in general.

Personal experience of trying to report some of the worst of these, doesn’t paint Facebook as a shining knight, battling for the good of trans people; rarely are they removed and responses to complaints take several months.

If you are going to provide options for gender then I agree that 58 are better than two but no matter how long you make that list, you are never going to catch everyone.

To get to the 56 new options you have to first select the heading ‘custom gender’ but really all gender is custom; it’s something personal and how you choose to define your own, will always remain up to you.

One of the most beautiful things about gender is that you can create your own unique definitions and labels instead of picking one off the shelf. Anyone attempting to list all possible options is never going to be able to keep up with humans’ capacity for imagining new and wondrous things.

For those who still can’t find their gender in the new list of ‘approved’ identities, the uncritically praise of Facebook will hurt the most.

 If you are struggling to imagine what identities haven’t made it onto the supposedly comprehensive list, then spare a few thoughts for, among others, those who don’t identify with gender at all (subtly different from identities like agenda or neutrois) and might wish to use labels such as ‘no gender identity/none/genderless/non-gendered’. 

The labels available also focus upon western identities and deny those with a strong cultural heritage to other parts of the world, where terms such as Fa’afafine or Waria originate.

While Facebook has added more options to pick from for your own personal gender, they’ve overlooked people’s relationships with each other, failing to add gender neutral options like parent, child or sibling and even requiring cousin to be classed as male or female.

Some have already fallen foul of this and have found themselves outed, when Facebook has automatically changed them to the default male categories like brother or father, even though they’ve picked a non-binary gender option. Similarly the ‘Interested In’ choices remain only as male and female, meaning the changes might allow you to better express your gender identity but not your sexual orientation.

In all this I don’t want to suggest that Facebook’s move isn’t a positive one, but let’s not forget that there is still a long way to go.

If Facebook wants to remain relevant it will always have to change and adapt along with society, and it is our job to praise them when they have done well and to push them forward when they haven’t done enough.

Whether Facebook decides to declare the job done or if it decides to invest the time into fixing the remaining problems, will be the true indicator of how much it values its trans users.

This will stand as an important marker of how society is changing, but that is all the more reason to make sure that it is done right. 

Sarah Gibson is a trans activist and student.

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