Facebook’s Brielle Harrison and Sara Sperling on the new custom gender options

 
 

On February 13, Facebook gave the U.S. LGBT community the best Valentine’s Day gift ever when they added 50 new custom gender options for those who live outside the usual female-male binary. I didn’t even know there were 50 options, but for the approximately 700,000 Americans who identify as trans, this historic change is a boon. In a social media world where we share where we are, who we’re with, how we feel, and what is that thing we’re eating, trans folks can finally share the most basic fact of all: Who we are.

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Photo courtesy of Facebook

The new gender options run the gamut from “FTM” and “MTF,” to “pangender” and “two-spirit,” and one I’ve never heard of until now, “neutrois.” Currently only available to Facebook’s 159 million monthly users in the U.S., we can also now choose our preferred pronouns – she, he, they, her, his, their – and limit who can see these changes. If you’re a Facebook user in Bogota, Berlin, or Busan, don’t feel forgotten. Facebook just wants to make sure they get it right before going global.

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Photo courtesy of Facebook

“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 Brielle Harrison, one of the engineers who worked on the project and recently changed her own Facebook gender to “trans woman.”

We talked to Brielle and Sara Sperling, an out lesbian from Facebook’s Diversity and Inclusion team, about their roles on the project, when the option will be rolled out for other countries, why Silicon Valley is so good at inclusion, and when are people going to stop poking me (on Facebook).

Brielle Harrison
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Photo courtesy of Facebook

AfterEllen: Fifty different gender options. Wow. Why was it important to have that many? Did you even imagine the list would be that long?
Brielle Harrison: It’s interesting. Even from my perspective [as a trans woman], I didn’t realize that there were that many choices. We worked with GLAAD to figure out the best list to start with. There are probably many we didn’t [include yet.] It’s going to be an evolving list, over time.

AE: Sara, were there any choices on the list that surprised you, or you had never heard of?
Sara Sperling: No. I mean, they’re definitely words I am familiar with. We were very intentional with what this list would look like. This is the list we wanted to start with. And I’m looking forward to seeing what else we need to add to the list.

AE: Where can Facebook users send feedback and suggestions for more options?
BH: That’s a good question. We’re listening to the comments that people leave on the various news articles and we’re getting ideas from there, but we also invite people to submit their suggestions on the Facebook Diversity page.

SS: Even with a list of 50 terms, there’s going to be some that we need to add in future versions. So people, request away. Give us feedback.

AE: When did the idea of multiple gender choices first come up?
BH: It’s an issue that’s been around for some time. I’m actually new to Facebook and I’m new to the project. I jumped in very recently to do whatever I could to help out. It’s an issue that’s very dear to me and it’s very relevant to my life.

AE: You recently change your own gender setting!
BH: Yes I did. I change my setting from female to trans woman. Since I joined the company, I’ve finally been able to be true about every aspect of my life. This was one thing that I was going to make no compromises on. I want people to know who I am. And I want to help people who are like me, so they can get out of the dark places that I know other trans people have been in, both mentally and physically.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel. They can find a place go to and be themselves. It’s the most freeing experience of my life to come out and be this way. To be me. I hope that I can be some sort of inspiration to help them.

AE: Brie, you’re inspirational in other ways, too. You were one of those trans people in the dark places, left high school before graduating, worked low-paying jobs to get by, and became a self-taught programmer that ended up at Facebook. That’s amazing.
BH: I have a very interesting back story. I didn’t have any formal teaching or anything like that. It was just something I had a passion for. After I dropped out of high school, I didn’t know that I would be given the opportunity to use a computer as a career. It was just a past time and an artistic outlet for me. [Programming] was something where I could go in and create something that didn’t exist before you got there. It’s really a type of artistic expression.

AE: Programming as art form is an interesting way to look at it. And I imagine that working on the customer gender project was a true labor of love for you. Sara, what was your role, besides being dapper and smart, I mean?
SS: I’m on the team for Diversity and Inclusion. My part of it was making sure that it kept moving, and we had the right partners involved. There were a huge number of people involved in it. My part was definitely not engineering, but it was definitely helping to keep this ship running, and keeping it on top of the minds of everyone.

Sara Sperling
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Photo courtesy of Facebook

AE: Now that you’ve opened the door, are there any plans to change the “interested in” or “family relationship” sections to include the list of terms?

BH: I think, let’s get this right, and then we’ll move forward and see what else we can do. I think there’s a lot of things we can do going forward, and if I can be a part of that, I’ll be happy to.

AE: How many people have taken advantage of the new option?
BH: It’s too early to tell.

AE: When is the new gender option going to be available in other countries? I know it took four months of long hours for many, many people to get the options out to the U.S.
BH: We don’t know yet. I feel like we would be doing it injustice if we just translated the terms and didn’t really pay attention to how trans people or gender non-conform people are received or called in their languages in different countries. There are a lot of cultural differences everywhere you go, even state to state, let alone country to country. We want make sure that we do it right.

AE: Brie, you said, “There will be a lot of people for whom this means nothing. But for the few that it means something, it means everything.” I love that statement because whenever there’s advocacy for change or actual change, some people automatically hate it because they think it’s somehow affects them, when it doesn’t. Someone else’s gender identity doesn’t change their own, someone else’s gay marriage doesn’t affect their marriage, and so on.
BH: That’s a very true statement. It felt right when I said it and I still stand behind it. In my journey as a trans woman, I’ve found there is very little understanding. The concept is one of change. And change is something that always scares people.

AE: Someday, gender identity will be a non-issue. So actually, what Facebook is doing really does affect everyone, in that it will change how everyone perceives others. It’s about visibility and understanding.
BH: If there’s anything I can do to help raise awareness and help other people like me, or even people who are nonconforming in general, I will. The idea is getting the concept across so people understand it, will be open to it, and not be surprised when they hear about it.

AE: Why do you think Silicon Valley is so far ahead of other fields when it comes to social change? Is it because the employees are younger? Do you have any personal observations or theories on that?
BH: I think California has always been a front-runner, as far these types of change. More importantly, technology is one of those fields where you can make a lot of money without ever having to directly interact with clients and do a lot of that culturally based face-to-face. It’s an environment that focuses more on who you are and what you know how to do, rather than what you look like or how you present to people. I think technology is a really good place for trans people to work, of course, assuming that you like it. You really should be focusing on the thing you love.

SS: Tech companies tend to hire people who come from diverse backgrounds. And so, when they come from families that look different, or they believe something different, then doing things [differently] is common sense. There’s not a lot of argument about if we should or shouldn’t. It just is.

BH: I have been exposed to so much cultural diversity in the tech industry because people are hired from all around the world. In my early days of working fast food and retail, it was nothing like this at all. Working in technology really gives you a chance to understand other people. Also, having been out of the country and seeing other countries, I recommend that anybody do that because it changes your entire world view.

AE: Working at Facebook sounds like one of the coolest jobs a person could have, trans or not. Hey, can I ask you kids a favor? Can you get people to stop poking me?
BH: That sounds like a personal question.

AE: [laughs] Come on, Brie. You’re a programmer! You can do something, right?
BH: Yes, I could do something. I can’t commit to anything, but I will look into it.

AE: Amazing! Thank you!
SS: Oh, Dara…

 
 

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