Facebook asks us to choose “male” or “female” on our profiles, but they shouldn’t.
Miles Wilcox, a sophomore at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, is an avid Facebook user, but he’s disgruntled with the website’s design. "I have serious issues with how Facebook is so heterosexist," he says. Wilcox, who identifies as a queer transman, objects to the very first field in the Facebook profile: a drop-down box asking users to select a sex from the options "male" and "female." He continues, "Facebook needs to get a grip on reality and acknowledge that not everyone feels comfortable with explicitly identifying as one gender or the other … I see no need for Facebook to know what is in my pants, but that’s what they ask everyone that signs up."
When the Facebook’s creators and designers decided how to structure the website’s profile, they placed strict limits on users’ choices. Users must rank sex and relationship status above political and religious views, and those above favorite books and movies due to the design of Facebook’s profile page. Furthermore, Facebook rigidly reinforces a gender binary, offering only "male" and "female" as options in the "sex" drop-down box, and only allowing users to check "men" and "women" under "interested in." The world around us is increasingly accepting of a spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, but Facebook is still sticking to outdated, problematic paradigms.
In July 2008, Facebook took the rigidity beyond the male/female binary in the "sex" information box, citing issues with translating the website into other languages. The company asked users to select a gender-specific pronoun, "he" or "she," so that the News Feed would know which pronoun to use instead of the ungrammatical single "they"—as in, "John added The Great Gatsby to his favorite books" or "Jane updated her political views" (emphasis added). All this is distinctly marginalizing for transgender or gender-nonconforming people like Wilcox who are less able to shelve themselves or the recipients of their interest into one of only two categories.
Ironically, groups that object to Facebook’s practices are protesting and raising awareness using Facebook itself. For example, Moriya Vanderhoef, a student at University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee, created a group called "Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition," which currently has 2,326 members. Vanderhoef, who studies LGBT history, says that she started the group "because there are far more genders and sexes in the world than just ‘male’ and ‘female’… I do not appreciate Facebook giving me the option to name my religious [affiliations], but restricting my gender and sexuality to the ultra narrow ‘male’ or ‘female.’" However, the petition has not achieved its goal of bringing this problem to Facebook’s attention: Vanderhoef has "never once heard from anyone in power about [the] group or the possibility of changing this problem."
Rebecca Bettencourt is another Facebook user who was frustrated by the company’s lack of response to user concerns about the "sex" field, believing that "Facebook’s limited set of options is not only problematic but grossly misrepresentative and insulting to thousands—maybe even millions—of people." She tried addressing the problem in a different way: when Facebook first allowed users to design their own applications, Bettencourt says, "I immediately knew what my mission was. If Facebook wasn’t going to fix this error, I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. As soon as the Facebook API was available, I created the SGO application."
SGO, which stands for "sex/gender/orientation," provides more options than Facebook’s own, including fill-in fields so that users can describe their gender and sexuality however they wish. SGO has had a modest amount of success among Facebook’s LGBT population, but users cannot accord its content the same level of importance as the official Facebook fields.
Bettencourt would like to see a change. "I do believe that Facebook, as well as other websites, should standardize their gender and orientation options along the lines of my app,” she says. “Not all the fields my app offers would be necessary, of course; I’d just like to see the fields for Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation that offered these additional options and/or a text field.”
Wilcox, who uses the application, agrees: "The SGO app is a really awesome tool, but essentially what it is an addition to supplement where people feel Facebook is lacking or failing them. Right now it’s helping, but I do think that Facebook should identify these issues and try to fix them," he says.
However, Facebook has done little to address these concerns. The company attempted to mollify those who disagreed with its gender-specific pronouns decision with a June 27, blog post last summer: "We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account, including how we refer to you in Mini-Feed."
That is not an adequate solution, however, for those who actually want to display a gender option outside of the male-female binary. Bettencourt, who has followed the issue closely, observed, "This is the only peep ever heard from Facebook regarding this issue, and it only confirms my suspicions of transphobia among the people running Facebook." (Facebook did not respond to requests for further comment on the policy.)
Other efforts to organize on Facebook as a means of changing its available options have been successful in the past. A few years ago, a different group of concerned Facebook users was able to successfully expand the options available in the "political views" field beyond a spectrum from "very liberal" to "very conservative." In 2007 and early 2008, as Facebook became increasingly popular in countries outside of the United States, a series of groups and petitions with titles like "By ‘Libertarian’ I mean Anarchist" generated a fair amount of attention from the Facebook user base. In contrast to the company’s unresponsiveness on the gender issue, Facebook seemed to have taken notice of this campaign. As of March 2008, users are now allowed a fill-in-the-blank political views field.
Of course, the political views movement had numbers on its side. Demographically speaking, far more people desire to label themselves as "socialist" or "libertarian" than, say, "genderqueer" or "pansexual." The minority of gender-variant individuals who feel limited by Facebook’s gender binary—unable to sustain a critical mass or to impress upon Facebook’s staff the importance of their cause—has been unable to lobby successfully for the change it wants to see.
Some might argue that Facebook is not doing anything particularly shocking—after all, we are asked to choose from "male" or "female" just about every time we fill out a job application, complete a silly online quiz, or use a public restroom. But a policy is not the right choice simply because it is the status quo. Because of its ubiquity among our generation, Facebook plays as important a role in shaping cultural norms and expectations as it does in reflecting them. Facebook has done much to revolutionize the way we present ourselves and communicate with one another, but it could be even more revolutionary if it were to embrace the diversity of its user base.
Emily Rutherford is a staff writer with Campus Progress.