Facebook Stirs Controversy With Embrace of LGBT Community

Facebook offered Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender users a new way to express their online identities Thursday.

This screen shot released by Facebook shows the new gender option screen.

Facebook is adding a customizable option with 58 different terms people can use to identify their gender, as well as three preferred pronoun choices: him, her or them.

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Facebook's decision to offer 58 ways for users to qualify their gender, announced Thursday, stoked predictable reactions among pro- and anti-gay rights groups.

"Transgender and gender nonconforming people are members of the [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] community who face the most prejudice, discrimination and violence; being able to authentically represent gender and adjust privacy settings will make Facebook safer, more inclusive and more accessible to these users," said Allison Palmer, GLAAD's former vice president of campaigns and programs, in an email to U.S. News. Palmer worked on the project with Facebook and current GLAAD staff.

Facebook’s decision to recognize the burgeoning transgender rights movement was a collaborative effort between the site and its Network of Support comprising several LGBT advocacy groups, according to The Associated Press. Facebook’s statement noted that users could adjust certain privacy settings to specify the audience to whom they chose to display this potentially sensitive information.

In a report co-authored with Gender Spectrum, the HRC found that 10 percent of the 10,000 LGBT young people surveyed fit into a “gender expansive” category and one-third of those chose the option to write in their response.

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Brown, who has been a trans-advocate for over a decade, explains that the change also has personal ramifications.

"I had male as my profile before and that definitely fits for me, but this change really lets me bring more of my identity to the table, when folks are looking at who I am on Facebook," he says. "I’ve not been closeted on Facebook by any means, but you really have to pay attention sometimes to tell. So this is going to be a little bit more public than some folks may have known."

Courtney Trouble, an adult film actress and queer icon who lives in California, told U.S. News she was thrilled to be able to change her Facebook identity to "genderqueer."

"It kind of feels a little bit like a fairy tale to have it on the world's largest most mainstream, most comprehensive social media site,” she said in an email.

Trouble said the online reaction has been mixed.

“I've seen a few people online lament or joke that they can't put custom identities in the field, and I want to gently speak to the fact that while some people think that gender is a construct, it really is very important that people with non-binary genders have a way to signify that to their peers," she said. "It's a matter of mental health and happiness.”

But not everyone is ready to accept Facebook’s pro-LGBT gesture.

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"Of course Facebook is entitled to manage its wildly popular site as it sees fit, but here is the bottom line: It's impossible to deny the biological reality that humanity is divided into two halves – male and female," said Jeff Johnston, an issues analyst for Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based national religious organization, in a statement. "Those petitioning for the change insist that there are an infinite number of genders, but just saying it doesn't make it so. That said, we have a great deal of compassion for those who reject their biological sex and believe they are the opposite sex."

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., says the move could backfire for LGBT activists seeking gender identity nondiscrimination laws.

"If legislators think they are having to endorse the concept of 50 different genders, I think it may give them pause," he says.

He is also concerned about the "identity crisis" this new development could trigger in children. He says that the site's users are as young as age 12 and could be confused by the list of options.

"If Facebook is calling that into question it could create emotional turmoil that is completely unnecessary," he says.

A spokesperson for Facebook could not say how many people had changed their gender identity since the launch of the new options, or when such options would be available outside of the United States.

Corrected on Feb. 18, 2014: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed where Courtney Trouble lives.