On Thursday, Facebook announced that instead of identifying as male or female (or hiding gender entirely), U.S. users will now be able to chose a custom gender, along with a gender-sensitive pronoun that allows for use of the singular “they.”
On the surface, it appears to be a small change. But Facebook’s decision to allow custom gender grants visibility to users who identify as queer, trans, genderqueer, intersex and more of fifty recognized gender-presentations.
“Custom” now sits alongside the “Male” and “Female” options in the “Edit profile” page, allowing any user to fill a blank box with the gender presentation that best suits them. In addition, Facebook asks for pronoun support — either “he,” “she” or “they,” for status updates and birthday messages.
Those who choose a custom gender will also be allowed to control who sees it. This is a huge deal, particularly for trans, genderqueer, and intersex users who haven’t yet come out to everyone. Even though it is likely just a few lines of code, the introduction of a custom, controllable gender eliminates the workarounds many people in the LGBTQI community employ when navigating their gender presentation online. I’ve seen many of my queer-identifying friends create alternate profiles under new names to hide their identities from those who might not approve.
In acknowledging the power of custom gender, Facebook has also recognized its potential for damage — so the user can control who, when and how gender is disclosed, without fear that a social network will do it for them.