For many people, selecting “male” or “female” on their Facebook profile is an easy choice. But for those who identify differently, Facebook now provides 56 gender selections.
Last week, Sterling Waldman of Chesterfield turned 17 and received a perfect birthday present: the option to identify as “genderqueer” on Facebook.
On Friday, Facebook expanded its drop-down menu to offer a “custom” selection of genders that provides more than four dozen options, a cause for celebration for many who identify in a nontraditional way.
“It was very exciting to have that happen,” Waldman told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon.
Fifty-six Choices Not Enough?
Born and raised female, Waldman always felt different from friends and schoolmates.
“I didn’t really fit in with the girls and I didn’t fit in with the boys,” Waldman said. “I wanted to be both.”
For years, Waldman struggled with the feelings but lacked the language to describe them.
“I didn’t have the words, but I learned the terminology at the end of my freshman year,” Waldman remembered.
Waldman, who prefers the pronouns “them” and “they” to “him, his, her or hers,” has parental support and a community of like-minded people, outside of school and within Parkway Central High.
“In my grade, there are two others who identify as gender-non-binary,” Waldman said.
Facebook's menu also includes "transgender," "trans," "androgynous" and "cisgender," which is another way of saying you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth.
But are 56 choices enough? When it comes to politics and religion, Facebook users don’t have to pick from a list. They can write in their beliefs using words of their choosing. The profile form looks as though you could write in what you want, but it only accepts one of the 56 terms.
Despite the glee over being able to identify as “genderqueer” on Facebook, Waldman knows that not everyone will find the right term to describe such a personal and integral part of themselves.
"I have some friends whose identities are not on that list," Waldman said.
But 53-year-old Leon Braxton of St. Louis did find his perfect label: intersex.
Braxton, well-known around St. Louis by his drag queen name Dieta Pepsi, was profiled in the 2013 Beacon series “Beyond the Gender Box.”
Braxton found out in 2012 that his hormones are female even though his birth certificate says “male.” The news was the puzzle piece he’d been looking for. His life finally made sense and he became an activist for educating people about his identity.
Facebook’s Diversity page says it worked with several LGBT groups to come up with the new gender choices, which also include the option to select gender-neutral pronouns. For example, “them” instead of “him or her,” for its messages like, “Today is so-and-so’s birthday. Wish them a happy birthday.”
Braxton still prefers male pronouns but embraces his new identity. On Friday, he wasted no time in changing his Facebook gender from male to intersex.
“As soon as they said you could do it, I went and did it and actually shed a couple of tears,” Braxton said.
For Braxton, identifying as intersex is part of living with authenticity.
“We who don’t fit into the binary norm of just male or female are able to express ourselves. This is the first time I’ll be able to tell everyone I’m intersex,” he said.
A Complicated Issue
Many transgender people, or those who identify as the opposite of their birth gender, changed their Facebook statuses right away. For Sayer Johnson, 41, who began his transition in 2006, "male" never felt exactly right.
"My gender is transgender," Johnson said.
With 180 million Facebook users in the U.S., Johnson felt it was important to label himself publicly as transgender to create more visibility for those who identify beyond "male" and "female."
"It was an emotional and political statement," Johnson said.
But for others, the new choices unearth an tangle of questions. Until now, Facebook -- and society -- made them choose between only two. "What do all these gender options mean, Facebook?" is the name of a discussion hosted by the Metro Trans Umbrella Group from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Pride St. Louis office, 3738 Chouteau.
Robyn Carolyn Montague, 60, is among those who are unsure what to do about this new opportunity. Montague’s Facebook page says she’s female. But now the retired aerospace engineer and LGBT activist who began transitioning eight years ago has to decide whether that’s still the best choice.
She applauds the new options including "transgender" and "transsexual," (whose difference is often personal choice) and is forthcoming about her identity. But she doesn’t want any "trans" label to completely define her, especially in the dating realm.
“I want a man to judge me as Robyn and a female, and then if necessary we can talk about transsexuality,” Montague said. “That way, my transsexuality becomes a discussion at the relationship level, not at the where-you’re-out-looking-for-someone level.”
Another local transgender individual, Jarek Steele, 41, identifies as male in his Facebook profile. Now 11 years into his transition, Steele's not immediately inclined to change his status.
“For right now I’m keeping it as male because I feel more comfortable with that,” Steele said. “That’s not to say I’m embarrassed by my transgender history, my transgender body.”
The Left Bank Books co-owner wants to make sure he doesn’t come off as judgmental about anyone else’s gender selection. Steele looks at it as an individual choice that should be honored. He also emphasized that gender is only part of who he is.
Just like a Facebook user who checks “female” on her profile but is also an engineer, a mom, and a yoga student, Steele’s gender identity is just one of many ways he sees himself.
“Book seller, bookstore owner, small-business owner, father, mother, husband; I’ve been a wife, I’ve been a sister, I’ve been a brother -- I’m all of those things,” Steele said. “And I’m also trans and I’m a male.”
Learn More about Transgender and Other Gender-Variant Individuals
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL