MENLO PARK, Calif. — You don’t have to be just male or female on Facebook anymore. The social-media company has added a customizable option with about 50 different terms people can use to identify their gender and three preferred pronoun choices: he/him, she/her or a neutral they/them.
Facebook said the changes initially will cover the company’s 159 million monthly users in the United States and are aimed at giving people more choices in how they describe themselves, such as androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid or transsexual.
“There’s going to be a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing, but for the few it does impact, it means the world,” said Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who worked on the project and is undergoing gender transformation, from male to female. On Thursday, while watchdogging the software for problems, she said she was also changing her Facebook identity from female to transwoman.
Facebook, which has 1.23 billion active monthly users worldwide, also allows them to keep their gender identity private and will continue to do so.
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The Williams Institute, a think tank based at UCLA, estimates there are at least 700,000 individuals in the United States who identify as transgender, an umbrella term that includes people who live as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.
The move by Facebook represents a basic form of recognition of the nation’s growing transgender-rights movement, which has been spurred by veteran activists and young people who identify as transgender at younger ages. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) last year found that 10 percent of the 10,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender youths it surveyed used “other” or wrote in their own gender terms.
“Over the past few years, a person’s Facebook profile truly has become their online identity, and now Facebook has taken a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves,” HRC President Chad Griffin said.
The change to the gender-selection option is seen as a major step toward acceptance for people who don’t self-identify as male or female, but the high-profile development seemed senseless to those who believe in two genders, no more.
“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,” said Jeff Johnston, an issues analyst for Focus on the Family, a national religious organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Those petitioning for the change insist that there are an infinite number of genders, but just saying it doesn’t make it so.”
Selecting“transgender” in a dropdown box isn’t necessarily 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 transgender often implies some sort of medical intervention, some people may not want that information to be shared on Facebook, 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., 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.”
The move by Facebook came after years of lobbying from users, some who started Facebook pages to petition for the change. Google+ offers male, female and “other” as choices, but transgender advocates said Facebook’s many specific options puts the platform ahead of any other online community. About 1 percent of Google+ users identify as other.
“I love that I can choose gender neutral,” said Debon Garrigues, of Asheville, N.C., who is transitioning from female to male. “I’m going to change it immediately.”
Garrigues also appreciated the opportunity to change pronoun preferences. Users also can select “neither” or “other” and separately indicate whether they want to be referred to as he/him, she/her or they/them.
Facebook came up with its terms after consulting leading gay and transgender activists. Facebook started the options in the United States and plans to take it global after working with activists abroad to come up with terms appropriate.
Associated Press writer Lisa Leff contributed to this story.