By Allison Palmer
Originally published on Advocate.com February 18 2014 5:45 AM ET
A 17-year-old named CJ tried to fill out the basic profile information on Facebook, but didn't fit in. Two years ago, CJ, who identifies as genderqueer, wrote an open letter to Facebook asking the company to give users a way to accurately express who they are on their profiles, especially if they don't identify as "male" or "female."
Last week, Facebook made a groundbreaking move by introducing a custom gender field and making the platform safer and more inclusive for users like CJ.
For most people, checking a box next to either "male" or "female" is one of the easiest parts of filling out an online profile. Many people don't give it a second thought. But for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, choosing between "male" or "female" doesn't always represent who they are. When you are a transgender or gender nonconforming person, your identity might not fit neatly into either box. Then what?
Facebook is taking an important step to help users to better reflect who they are on their profiles. Users can select from a set of terms to identify their gender and then control the privacy setting for the custom field. Additionally, those who use the custom gender field can select the preferred pronoun, including a gender neutral pronoun, that will be used when they do activities on the platform.
If this doesn't sound like a big deal to you, you probably won't be using the new custom profile options. The people who need this feature are transgender and gender-nonconforming people, members of the LGBT community who face the immense amounts of prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Being able to accurately represent gender and adjust privacy settings will make the Facebook experience safer and more accessible for these users. The set of gender identification terms available today is a work in progress and can be updated in response to user need.
Before today, young people like CJ wrote blog posts and open letters. They created petitions targeting the site. LGBT organizations including AllOut campaigned for this change. Bloggers wrote posts about the importance of providing additional gender options. Facebook users created groups, events, pages and even apps on Facebook asking for the change.
Facebook has a track record of working with the LGBT community to improve the platform and make it safer for people. Today's announcement comes after ongoing conversations and outreach with GLAAD, individuals, other LGBT organizations in Facebook's Network of Support, and members of Facebook's own staff.
By making this change, Facebook — the largest social platform in the world, with more than 1.2 billion users worldwide — is setting a standard for other tech companies and platforms that offer personal profiles. Users of OKCupid have called for expanded gender options, and Google+ publicly responded to users' requests and introduced customizable privacy of its gender profile field. Other companies can use Facebook's new feature as a model to implement on their own platforms.
More broadly, Facebook's new feature signals a cultural shift and an increase in visibility of transgender people. Today we see more transgender people setting the terms to talk about their own lives in the media, including Laverne Cox, the break out star of Orange Is The New Black, writers Janet Mock, and Jennifer Finney Boylan, as well as athletes Kye Allums and Fallon Fox.
Facebook's change is one step toward removing obstacles to transgender and gender nonconforming people's safety and ability to participate fully in their lives. With more people able to accurately identify themselves on social media platforms like Facebook, more of us will find the space to live authentically to who we really are.
ALLISON PALMER develops strategy at Purpose.com. She previously served as GLAAD's former Vice President of Campaigns & Programs who worked on the gender options project with Facebook. Follow her on Twitter at @allisonpalmer.