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.
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.
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).
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?
AE: Sara, were there any choices on the list that surprised you, or you had never heard of?
AE: Where can Facebook users send feedback and suggestions for more options?
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?
AE: You recently change your own gender setting!
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
AE: [laughs] Come on, Brie. You’re a programmer! You can do something, right?
AE: Amazing! Thank you!