Who are you on Facebook now?

Apr 13 2014, 12:32 IST
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No, those are not spelling mistakes but 50 possibilities of gender identification on offer now at the site. Reuters No, those are not spelling mistakes but 50 possibilities of gender identification on offer now at the site. Reuters
SummaryNo, those are not spelling mistakes but 50 possibilities of gender identification on offer now at the site

ON HIS driver’s licence and passport, at his doctor’s office and insurance company, for online dating and social media, and on every application or document that requires checking a box for gender, 24-year-old Ryley Pogensky is a “male”. But to his friends on Facebook, he is now a “trans man”.

Facebook recently announced that it would offer users 50 different possibilities and permutations of gender identification. In the gender category under ‘Basic Information’, the box now includes such “custom” choices as non-binary, intersex, neutrois, androgyne, agender, gender questioning, gender fluid, gender variant, genderqueer and neither.

The gender project was developed at a “hackathon” — an all-night coding fest at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California — with input from GLAAD, an advocacy group based in New York. “Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of requests for additional terms,” said Allison Palmer, former vice-president for campaigns and programmes at GLAAD. “It speaks to how important Facebook is in people’s lives. Having only two options was a big problem.”

Some of the terms are not found in standard dictionaries. “Cisgender” is officially defined as someone who identifies with his or her societally recognised sex, but it has come to have a more LGBT-supportive subtext: I’m OK with what it says on my birth certificate, but I realise that’s not true for everyone.

“Other people might see one of these terms and think it’s a typo,” said Sasha Kolodkin, a 19-year-old student, who chose to be identified as a gender non-conforming transsexual female. “It’s sort of a secret language that not everyone will understand. I was born male and feel that I should have been female. But use of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is very confining.”

There have been a number of successful, albeit temporary, hacks into Facebook to allow gender-neutral pronouns, so that a profile reads “Wish them a happy birthday” rather than “him” or “her”.

“A lot of friends who are tech geeks did that,” said Pogensky, who is a blogger. “I think Facebook caught onto it.”

So far, the new labels are only available in English to Facebook users in the US; it will take a while to figure out the translation of “pan-gender” in Japanese or Finnish. “In a lot of languages, there isn’t an easy way to express a human being without including gender,” said Alex Schultz, vice-president of growth at Facebook. “But we’re interested in giving people options to express who they really are.”

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