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Google recognizes non-binary, fluid nature of gender identity in new settings

This is another post that began as a mere link post and became, by the time I was done writing it, an article in its own right. When I’m doing more than brief commentary, an article of my own feels more appropriate. There’s more room for opinion in a full article, and I like few things more than expressing my opinions.

I was heartened to read that Google Plus will allow custom gender self-identification. Googler Rachael Bennett announced the new gender options, appropriately enough, on her Google Plus page, saying:

When “Custom” is selected, a freeform text field and a pronoun field will appear. You can still limit who can see your gender, just like you can now.

This may not seem important to cisgendered1 readers, just as naming a state anti-discrimination law after Apple CEO Tim Cook may not seem like a big win for the LGBTQ community at large.

Google’s recent move, though, exceeds even Facebook’s more than 70 custom gender options. Many of us use our social networking profiles as an important or even primary way of presenting ourselves to the world. It’s therefore important that we can be as vague or as specific as we want to be on those social networks, so we maintain control over our own identities.

But people who are comfortable with their gender or sexual orientation “in real life” may, in the online world, suffer the reverse of being “outed.” Namely, that while they live “out” in real life, limited options for expressing their gender or sexual orientation might force them to misrepresent themselves online.

And people who aren’t yet “out” in real life may see a lack of options for accurate self-expression as yet another point of social pressure on them to delay coming out. The two problems, though opposites, are equally disturbing. Such circumstances can be degrading and depersonalizing, and Google’s change to gender options is a small but important step toward solving those and similar problems.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are too often viewed, especially by cis people, as binary, non-fluid characteristics. The truth, as I understand it2, is that sexual orientation and gender identity are often composed of an interplay of continuums. More than that, for many people the two are not fixed points, but fluid and shifting throughout life, especially young life. That makes the proliferation of custom self-identification options on social networks a great thing.

The law, of course, has a very long way to go in this area, but that’s a matter for another article altogether.

  1. “Cisgendered” describes a “gender identity where individuals’ experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth,” as opposed to transgendered. Source: Wikipedia (I know, I know, but this is a blog post, not a legal brief or a research paper, give me a break.) 

  2. Again, I’m a cis male, straight, white and middle-class American. I’m not exactly brimming over with personal experiences indicative of the discrimination I’m talking about, and I think it’s important to point that out so you can read this in context.