The switch makes a lot of sense, given the growing support for gender-diverse or -neutral options in college housing, public restrooms and other traditionally gendered spaces. But it makes particular sense for Facebook, given the network’s ambitions as the one-stop online showcase for individual identity. Facebook seems very aware of this mission: “When you come to Facebook to connect … we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self,” reads part of the announcement on the Diversity page.
Facebook is also no stranger to debates on gender representation online; in its early days, the site used the (ungrammatical!) singular “they” to describe a user’s activity, as in “Arika tagged themself in a photo.” (The Week’s Arika Okrent wrote a whole piece on Facebook’s history with pronouns last week.) But in order to ease translations and get on the right side of incensed grammar-nerds, Facebook began requiring that users identify as male or female. With this change, the site will again refer to users with a singular “they” if they select the option for a “neutral” pronoun.
That might not sit well with grammarians — suggested alternatives include new pronouns like “ze” and “zon” — but Facebook believes the change will mean much more to impacted users. Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who identifies as transwoman, told the AP:
There’s going to be a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing, but for the few it does impact, it means the world …“All too often transgender people like myself and other gender nonconforming people are given this binary option, do you want to be male or female? What is your gender? And it’s kind of disheartening because none of those let us tell others who we really are. This really changes that, and for the first time I get to go to the site and specify to all the people I know what my gender is.