There’s a refreshing shift in social networking today, as many sites are going beyond male and female, allowing users to include the gender with which they truly identify.

Facebook was an early pioneer in this (despite controversy over mandating that users have their real name), and Pinterest recently updated to let users put in a custom gender.

The facet of true box-less self expression helped launch Ello into popularity, and Google+ and OKCupid also cater to those who don’t feel comfortable labeling themselves as either female or male. Twitter does not ask for a gender in the registration process.

Tilde Pier, a software engiqueer at Pinterest, discussed with SocialTimes why it is important for social networks to allow users to identify with the gender they truly feel represents themselves:

lwtThe right to self-identify in a way that fits you is a basic human right. Most people see gender as binary, and are more or less comfortable in one of the boxes. For folks who don’t, even small things such as finding a bathroom you can use comfortably are a struggle. Online spaces are particularly important for gender-variant folks. The relative anonymity and privacy of the internet makes it possible to explore and play with aspects of one’s identity in ways that aren’t possible in the physical world. Anything we can do to make Pinterest and other sites a safer space for marginalized groups of people is important.

Pier said that enabling a custom gender option was a “fairly straightforward feature,” taking only a few weeks to develop and implement:

This is just a first step for us, and we have additional improvements in the works that are more ambitious, and will hopefully provide an even better experience for Pinners.

As more and more LGBTQ people around the world join and become active on social sites, these companies are recognizing that it’s important for them to be accepted members of the community.

Google+ introduced custom gender options in December, as Google’s Rachael Bennett posted:

For many people, gender identity is more complex than just “male” or “female.”  Starting today, I’m proud to announce that Google+ will support an infinite number of ways to express gender identity, by giving you the option to customize the way your gender is represented on your profile.

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Last February, Facebook took a key step by allowing users to identify as gender-neutral. Facebook users can determine if they want to be addressed as a male, female or neutral.

Facebook’s Diversity page posted about this ability, developed in collaboration with leading LGBT advocacy organizations:

Now, if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own. As before, you can add up to ten gender terms and also have the ability to control the audience with whom you would like to share your custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way.

The site also has privacy settings in place so users can determine how public their gender preference is within their network. Later, the site added gender-neutral options for family members and a free form for users to identify however they wish.

Ryan Beaver, the operations manager at The Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County (roughly an hour east of San Francisco), is excited about the work done by social networks to accommodate those who don’t feel right selecting male or female:

It is very validating to be able to be your authentic self online. Its an important step in the social transition process to be able to change your name, pictures, pronouns, and identity categories when you feel ready. For many people, social transition in the work world doesn’t yet feel like an option due to fear of rejection, transphobia, and social stigma.

For some folks, the online community might be the only place they get to transition. So having a space to do that with the support of friends can make all the difference in someone’s life, and the structural organization of a site in allowing for more options can go a long ways toward that!

He noted that while major networks such as Facebook and Pinterest have established these guidelines, inclusion of a custom gender option is a key factor for those who want to be active on smaller networks.

Beaver talked with SocialTimes about how, even with custom gender options, many LGBTQ people are skeptical of social networks. The value of free expression often comes at odds with the need by companies for demographic-based ad targeting to users with accurately-represented profiles. Facebook has come under fire for its real name policy, as people have seen profiles suspended or closed because of pseudonyms. Groups such as #MyNameIs have protested Facebook in person and online about this issue.

But for queer or trans* users whose preferred name isn’t always on their driver’s license, this poses a problem, Beaver said:

The trouble is that it is difficult to get verification of a preferred name for trans* spectrum folk before name change paperwork has been filed, because most of the verification options (driver’s license, credit card, school records also reference legal name and are resistant to changing without a legal name change.) This can make it hard to be your authentic self on a site like Facebook, because they will lock down your account if you aren’t able to meet their verification standards.

Readers: What else do you feel social networks need to do to be more accommodating?

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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