Two areas where Facebook falls short on new gender identity options

Facebook should receive some kudos today for adding an option for its users to select from a range of gender identities beyond solely male or female. The Associated Press, via the Sacramento Bee, spells out the changes. However, the changes fall short in the gender identity selection field and in the somewhat related “Interested in” field.

Facebook's updated basic information settings now allow users to select a custom gender identity.

Facebook’s updated basic information settings now allow users to select a custom gender identity.

First, while “custom” gender line allows the user to type in their preferred gender identity, users must ultimately select from a list currently limited to 56, as reported by DFM Thunderdome. I tried to type in a gender identity beyond those on the list and was rejected.

If you’re used to just male or female, 56 sounds like a lot but many on the list seem to be duplicates. For example, there are cis female, cis woman, cisgender female and cisgender woman (there is a similar set for men). To a layperson and aided by the Wikipedia article on the matter, all four sound like slight variations on the concept that a person’s body type and gender identity are aligned together as female.

Through the list there are items that are apparently similar, but may also reflect key distinctions (such as between transgender and transsexual). Ultimately, it appears that Facebook wanted to give users several options on how precisely they wanted to identify themselves, but that exposes a possible shortcoming.

No matter how many options Facebook provides, it seems likely that some categories or variations were left out. That leads to me to propose the following: Why not offer users a truly blank line to fill in? If it is important for people to feel comfortable to define themselves as they see fit, what better option is there than a purely empty canvas?

Facebook already allows users this option in the potentially volatile fields of religion and political affiliation.

Most people will likely stick with the two generally accepted gender types, but the blank field will allow anyone to put any response that they feel is appropriate.

There could be some downsides. It may be harder to individuals to search for people with a specific gender identity (and it would be harder to Facebook to characterize and subsequently monetize a user’s profile along those lines). Also, there may be some chuckleheads who use the blank form to make an insensitive statement.

The first point will likely only be a minor inconvenience for users (and Facebook likely has enough data on its users to sell advertisers on). The latter point could be resolved by limiting the field to a certain number of characters and speech that violates Facebook’s terms of use should be addressed with accordingly.

The expansion of possible gender identities underscores the woeful inadequacy of Facebook’s “Interested In” field. As of now, users can only use checkboxes to indicate an interest in either males, females, both or neither. Given that users can now express themselves as 56 gender identity types or some combination thereof, this now seems like an area for expansion.

However, opening up the “Interested in” area may pose additional complications because the area seems to be more about sexuality, although genders are listed. While there isn’t an express field for it, a user’s selection in the current “Interested In” field combined with their gender identity can heavily imply whether one is straight, gay, bisexual or none of the above.

Although I initially thought it would be simple to expand the list of genders one may be interested in, I’m now unsure about the best way for Facebook to expand this category. Maybe Facebook can keep this category around for those who prefer simplicity or don’t wish to be overt, but can also add a blank field where people can outright declare their sexual orientation if they choose.

Both the gender identity and “interested in” categories can be deeply personal and it seems prudent that Facebook allows users to keep this information private. At the same time, Facebook’s expansion of its gender identity category seems to beg for adding even more options for users seeking the best way to identify themselves and their interests.