Facebook’s new gender identities exclude non-English Speakers

Alok Vaid-Menon. (Photo courtesy of Alok Vaid-Menon)
Alok Vaid-Menon is an activist with the Audre Lorde Project and is one half of the queer South Asian poet-activist duo Dark Matter. (Photo courtesy of Alok Vaid-Menon)

On February 13, Facebook introduced a feature that allows U.S. English-speaking users to select from roughly 50 different gender identities for their profile information, as well as three different pronoun options (she/hers; he/his; they/theirs).

The Associated Press wrote last week, “Facebook said the changes for the company’s 159 million U.S. users are aimed at giving people more choices in how they describe themselves, such as androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid or transsexual,” adding that Facebook also offers the option of keeping gender identity private.

Following the update, New York City based activist Alok Vaid-Menon, 22, updated their profile to list their gender as “Gender Nonconforming,” and selected the pronouns they, their and them.

“I think it’s really cool and neat,” Vaid-Menon said,  “especially because a lot of the language they decided to include…was developed by grassroots activists.”

But Vaid-Menon warns that there is still a long way to go.

Facebook now offers over 50 gender identities and 3 choices of pronouns to its US English speaking users.

“While it is obviously convenient to have my pronouns on Facebook, I notice that in these moments of success we lose our critique of things,” they said.

For example, Vaid-Menon noted that foreign terms for transgender in India such as “kothi,” “panthi,” or “hijra,” are not included in Facebook’s list.

“This feature is only available to Facebook’s English speakers, and the list also doesn’t include non-English terms,” Vaid-Menon said. “Most gender non-conforming people are not in the US to begin with. It results in this pinkwashing, where the United States is seen as progressive.”

Other critiques have emerged as well, such as the one in The Federalist suggesting that the pronoun initiative is about “selling ads,” and not inclusion.

“I don’t know if they’re going to gain profit from this, I don’t know yet if trans*-friendliness is profitable,” Vaid-Menon said. “Facebook is being painted as progressive when it is responsible for gentrification and displacement of many people of color in the Bay Area, for example, and I think it’s interesting that Facbeook hasn’t actually come out as supportive of other queer and grassroots struggles. The fact that they don’t put money back into these communities or causes is a performance of allyship versus actual allyship.”

The new pronouns follow public criticism of Facebook’s gender options. In March of 2012, Nepal’s first openly gay politician, Sunil Babu Pant, wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg demanding more flexibility.

“People who do not identify as male or female continue to be sidelined by Facebook’s options,” Pant wrote. “As you allow users to identify only as male or female, many in the LGBTI community feel as if they are hidden on the site, unable to identify as their true selves. I encourage you to [implement a third gender option], for the sake of respect for gender-variant people around the world who want to socialize, organize, and be a part of your 21st century Internet revolution. I encourage Facebook to celebrate diversity.”

Vaid-Menon hopes that in time, the feature will expand so that individuals can write in their genders instead of selecting from a list of options.

“It’s really important to acknowledge that the very idea that there is a list is what trans* movements have been fighting against all along,” Vaid-Menon said. “We have been fighting for self determination. It’s not about moving from 2 options to 50 options, it’s about being able to write it in.”