Google+ is the hot new thing in social networking (the jury’s still out for me on whether it’s a positive addition). But the first thing I encountered when I went to sign up for the site sent up my gender flares and painted it in a negative light from the start. And I’m not talking about the possibly erroneous claim the site has a huge male majority.
Users are required to provide two pieces of information: their name, and their gender. And the gender options are Male, Female, and Other.
Facebook’s gender policy has been criticized for a long time because of the lack of options, but at least putting a gender marker on your profile is optional. With Google+, gendering yourself is a requirement for entry.
I fit just fine into the Google+ categories: I’m female, and that does not actually need to be qualified with “trans” all the time. But plenty of people don’t fit into the categories Male and Female. Google+ acknowledges this somewhat, but damn, Other is such an offensive way to do so it might hurt more than it helps. People identify their genders in a myriad of ways, and “other” is just as valid a label for someone to claim as genderqueer, gender non-conforming, trans, two spirit… But defaulting to “other” to describe people who don’t fit into your sanctioned categories is, well, othering.
Look, I can think of reasons that make a lot of sense for why Google+ would make this decision. Social networking sites often use pronouns, so having that information is useful. And let’s not forget, it’s super useful to advertisers (always gotta think about the money angle). But that doesn’t make the decision OK. When someone on Facebook doesn’t have a gender chosen the site defaults to “they/their” for pronouns. Is that really so complicated?
Finally, I know this is a super scary concept, but it’s not actually all that hard to list more gender options. I’ve organized conferences where we worked to include a range of gender identities on registration forms (including an option to not pick one or to pick multiple terms) that included a whole range of categories for trans and gender non-conforming folks. Yes, it took a little bit of time to build the list, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The result was inclusive forms that also happened to give us much more interesting demographic information.
New race and ethnicity categories are being added to the US census all the time, and the world has yet to end as a result.
If the issue’s pronouns, why not (again, optionally) ask for preferred pronouns, and include options like they/their and ze/hir? What’s the worst that could happen? It causes a public reaction and we get a teachable gender moment?
Male, Female, Other feels like people who don’t fit into Male/Female and him/her are being told their gender issues are frivolous and unimportant, not a part of their identities and humanity deserving of as much respect as the genders of people who do fit.