Facebook’s belated gender options evoke need for inclusive discussion on campus


Assistant Opinions Editor

by Alexa J. Williams '14 Arts Editor

by Alexa J. Williams ’14
Arts Editor

As of last Thursday, Facebook users can go to the gender section in the About tab and find a third option, beneath the categories male and female, that reads “custom.” When users click on this option, a white box shows up under the word “gender,” which will provide a drop down menu of options once users start typing. This feature offers 56 preset options to choose from, including trans, pangender, gender nonconforming and two-spirit. Beyond celebrating this improvement, the adequate expression here would be something more along the lines of an exasperated “finally.”

Given the important role that Facebook plays in today’s society and its purpose of enabling users to create an online identity, Facebook urgently needed to give users more flexibility to label their genders on the site.

Facebook displays people’s genders in the “Basic Information” section of their profiles, along with other details like age and religion. But unlike these pieces of basic information, gender is fluid—a spectrum, not a binary.

Facebook’s previous options for gender dismissed the fluidity of gender, and dismissed the LGBTQ community by only allowing people to identify as either male or female.

Facebook users can also restrict who can see their choice of customized gender, though this is not the case for the male and female choices. If users choose male or female, Facebook will simply give them the option of checking the “show on my timeline” box. As soon as users select the custom option, however, they can choose exactly who can see whichever custom option they select. The necessity for this option reflects the unfortunate reality of the world that LGBTQ people live in.

People who identify their gender with the sex they were born with do not need to consider the implications of disclosing their gender identity, and can announce their gender to the world without consternation. Those who do not identify as male or female face an array of choices that are accurately reflected in the options that Facebook now offers. Do they want their gender to be known by the public (this choice is illustrated by a small icon of the world), by friends of friends, friends or only themselves (a lock)?

Users can also select groups or communities with which to share their gender on Facebook. For instance, Wellesley students can choose to make their gender known only to the Wellesley community. This option reflects Facebook’s recognition of the different levels of comfort that people feel in different social circles. People are often more comfortable sharing their gender identities with people in their college communities, in part because colleges tend to be more progressive than other social circles.

Colleges need to work toward the creation of communities that are as close to being safe spaces as possible, where people feel comfortable sharing, among other information, their gender identities. One of the many ways in which colleges can live up to this is by having more open discussions on trans issues. For example, women’s colleges like Wellesley should encourage deabte on the admission of trans women.

Smith College’s recent controversy over admitting trans women and Facebook’s new gender flexibility contribute to the fight towards greater inclusion. Wellesley should likewise contribute to a more inclusive society by encouraging students to voice their opinions on the admission of trans women.

Currently, Wellesley does not accept transgender women. In an interview with Lori Adelman, director of an online feminist blog, the College stated that it is “deeply committed to being a women’s college.” However, those who argue that Wellesley should admit trans women are not saying that Wellesley should no longer be a women’s college. They are saying that Wellesley’s status as a women’s institution wouldn’t change if the College accepted anyone who identified herself  as a woman.

Last year, Smith made headlines when it denied admission to Calliope Wong, a transgender woman, because her FAFSA identified her as male. This incident heightened awareness of the outdated admissions policies at many single-sex institutions, including Wellesley. Wellesley needs to reevaluate its admissions policies.

Deciding to admit transgender individuals into the Wellesley community would not necessarily violate federal rules for single-sex colleges. Some people believe that admitting students who are listed as male on their birth certificates might hamper Wellesley’s ability to legally remain a women’s college.

Yale undergrad Sarah Giovaniello has been covering Wong’s story for the magazine Broad Recognition. According to her research, Smith does admit trans women, but has made its policy and requirements so stringent that it is practically turning many of them away before they even apply.

However, the media coverage that Wong’s story received shows the benefits of open conversation, which Wellesley should encourage in addition to considering the possibility of accepting trans women. Facebook’s belated modifications to its gender options will help create more inclusion for the LGBTQ community, but these same modifications also highlight areas where our society still needs improvement.

Let us hope that Wellesley’s student body is supportive enough to make everyone who customizes their gender settings on Facebook comfortable with sharing them with the Wellesley community on Facebook. In addition to working towards inclusion on campus, we must support and encourage discussions of issues such as the admission of trans women into the College. This will allow us to build a more open campus and contribute towards a society devoid of limitations reminiscent of Facebook’s previous gender choices.

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