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April 20, 2014

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Facebook users, others react to gender options

Updated Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 | 2:03 p.m.

Facebook announced on Thursday that its 159 million U.S. users now have dozens of options for completing the gender question on their profiles. The social media giant has been working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups to expand the choices beyond male and female. The result: a "custom" option that lets users pick from about 50 terms, including transsexual, androgynous and intersex.

The Associated Press asked Facebook users and others for their reactions:

— Jay Brown, 35, of Maryland, changed his gender on Facebook to Trans Male on Thursday once the option became available.

"Looking at my Facebook profile, people see photos of my 3- and 5-year-olds, my love for running and that my wife had a birthday yesterday," Brown told the AP. "They saw a dad, a runner, a husband. The 'male' selection was right but it wasn't all there was to me. Today, Facebook is letting me bring more of my identity to the table."

— Jeff Johnston, issues analyst for Focus on the Family, an influential national religious organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., said just because people lobbying for the change say there are an infinite number of options, that's not true.

"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," Johnston told the AP.

— Chiyerre Echie and Jasmine Jefferson are both 18-year-old freshmen at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Both are from Memphis and say they are occasional users of Facebook. Echie is studying pre-med and Jefferson is studying pre-med and Asian studies.

Interviewed at lunch on campus Thursday afternoon, they said they don't know anyone who is transgender, but they approve of the additional options on Facebook.

"I think it's progressive. It needed to happen since there are so many different options for people nowadays," Jefferson said.

Echie said, "I agree, I guess, if it makes people happy to be able to come out in public and say, 'This is who I am.'"

— Shiv Pruthi is a 20-year-old junior at Loyola University in Chicago majoring in biology. The Rochester, Minn., native says he's been a regular user of Facebook since high school.

Speaking from campus on Thursday afternoon, Pruthi said he doesn't know anyone who is transgender, but it wouldn't stop him from accepting a Facebook request from someone who identified themselves as something other than male or female.

Pruthi said he would be no less likely to accept a friend request from someone that's transgender.

"It depends on how well I know the people," he said of accepting friends. "A lot of times you get Facebook requests from someone who has seen you once or twice in the hall. If I knew them, I wouldn't have a problem accepting them. It's their choice to put that there."

Of friends who have previously identified themselves as "male" or "female" and since changed their status, Pruthi said, "I probably would be kind of shocked at first. But if they did choose (a different option to identify themselves by), I would support that. Good for them, not being afraid to put that on a public social interaction site."

—Selecting the word "transgender" in a dropdown box isn't quite so simple for some trans people, who may prefer to continue using the "male" or "female" designation, said Carrie Davis, 54, who works at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City.

"A transgender woman who is seen by the world as a woman isn't going to want her primary identity to be 'transgender woman'," Davis said. "She's probably going to want to be seen, most of the time, as a woman."

Since the term transgender often implies some sort of medical intervention, some people may not want that information to be shared with their Facebook community, Davis said.

"I think the challenge here is that these words are loaded words," said Davis, who lives in Brooklyn with her partner. "So they may be accurate for some people and not accurate for others."

Although the decision to talk about gender identity publicly is a personal one, Davis said the change could help combat the stigma associated with being transgender.

"I think what's really great about it is, people get a choice. There was no choice before," she said. "For those people who feel like man or female or man or woman is not sufficient to describe who they are, this gives them that choice."

— Mike Muñoz, 27, of Boulder Creek, Calif., was reached after he posted on the AP's Facebook page. He said he thinks the feature "is a great one to offer," but lamented that people feel the need to label themselves at all.

"Purely by categorizing yourself with these gender labels you are restricting yourself from personal growth, you paint yourself into corner so to speak. The amount of options does seem a little over-kill but it's understandable as you wouldn't want to leave any group or individual out. I am grateful Facebook has implemented these changes and hope they're beneficial to those who will be using them; who knows, maybe I'll switch to something more appropriate to my liking."

— Laurel Ramseyer, 50, of Massachusetts, said she kept her gender blank because the Facebook options did not include her preferred term: Human.

"Having the first decision point as a choice between male, female and what is essentially 'other' is still stigmatizing," told the AP. "You could place male and female at the top of an otherwise alphabetical master list if you want to appease the majority who may be offended to be forced to pick their way through a list like we 'custom' folk are forced to do. It's probably too late now, but it shouldn't be called 'custom' if the user can't create their own term. It's simply an elongated list that someone(s) else came up with."