Facebook's gender trouble

A recent change may please grammarians, but not transgender users.

Published July 9, 2008 8:40PM (EDT)

Facebooking grammarians, put away your red pens. When you tag yourself in a picture, remove yourself from a group or engage in any other self-inflicted activity worthy of that all-knowing newsfeed, you will no longer be referred to as that linguistic mess of a made-up pronoun, themself. So now whenever those Facebook friends you haven't seen since high school put up a photo album and tag themselves holding a drink to show you how cool they became, your trusty newsfeed will say, "Michael 'Drunkface' Feldman tagged himself in a picture," and "Liz 'Franzia4Life' McKenzie tagged herself in a picture." Who cares, right?

Well, this seemingly minor modification comes with some serious gender trouble. The Facebook Blog attributes the reason for the syntactical change to international translation issues, claiming the alteration was necessary after the site received "feedback from translators and users in other countries that translations wind up being too confusing when people have not selected a specific sex on their profile." But in making the switch to "himself" and "herself," one of the leading social networks in the world is asking all of its users who have opted not to choose a gender to choose one, leaving out those who do not identify themselves as male or female. Facebook addresses these users by telling them to disregard gender completely:

"We've received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account."

Salon's recent piece on the pregnant man examines the misunderstood -- and often simply ignored -- identity politics of transgender people who don't want to "remove gender entirely," the way Facebook suggests, instead going by gender-neutral pronouns like "ze" and "zir." Instead of forcing users to choose between male and female and, well, nothing, why not make the category allow users to write in what they want -- like the site's religion category allows them to do. If Facebook really wants to lead a social revolution in the way we define ourselves, then allowing people freedom from a constantly reinforced gender binary might be a good start.

By Logan Scherer

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