Facebook's well-intentioned gender leap muddles discourse

elderFacebook took a progressive step toward equality last week, extending its once gender-binary status to include a set of more than 50 new gender options.

In principle, I salute this change. It’s a simple extension that is certain to humanize people with non-binary gender identities, not to mention promote awareness on just how complex gender identity can be.

Despite this complexity, the need for more than 50 gender options is perplexing and unnecessary. I understand that people have their own personal preferences regarding how they’d like to be identified (to lump them all under a couple of umbrella identifiers would be remiss of the fluidity of the gender spectrum), but the morass of specialized jargon that dominates Facebook’s provided options borders on the absurd.



Granted, the bulk of these options are either synonyms or redundant subsets of other labels, with only 12 or so distinct gender options. There is no substantial difference between the terms “cis woman,” “cisgender female” and “cisgender woman.”

Moreover, if it's Facebook’s aim to keep things convenient, then why not simply allow users to type in their own custom gender preference? Surely this would avoid the clutter of repetitive identifiers as well as make it easier for users to express themselves without constraint.

With this in mind, does Facebook have an obligation to streamline its list into something more comprehensive? While it may be true that this small change will bring a lot of happiness to some marginalized groups and have no significant bearing on the lives of everyone else, it’s impractical to expect someone to memorize a whole slew of custom terms for the sake of respecting gender identity. I believe it’s possible to respect people without learning 50+ different gender designations.

This all sounds rather nitpicky and trivial, but a lot of the technical phrasing surrounding non-binary gender groups is counterintuitive to the gradual process of social acceptance. People fear the unknown, and it’s largely through empathy and the realization of our universal sameness that this fear is overcome.

I am concerned that the insistence on byzantine terminology — as evinced in Facebook’s new options — is obfuscating this process of realization. In other words, it’s easier to relate to someone when you’re not jumping through linguistic hurdles in trying to address them correctly.

We are confronted with scenarios daily that force us to pick general categories to best capture our intricate identities, even though these categories are far from perfect fits. I have long been irked by race and ethnicity-related options on standardized tests and legal paperwork, seeing as they don’t completely represent who I am, yet I have begrudgingly accepted them as a consequence of having to make approximations about identity. It’s a cost of concise and practical communication.

While I applaud Facebook’s decision to include more gender options, the options themselves are redundant, vague and only further muddle society’s view of this already complex topic.

Reach the columnist at Alexander.Elder@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ALEXxElder

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