June 30, 2014

How Facebook Is Changing Coming Out

In the 21st century, Facebook and other social media platforms offer a new way for LGBTQ individuals to "come out" to friends and family.

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LGBTQ millenials are growing up and coming out in a vastly different climate than previous generations, and a huge part of that is the advent of the internet. The internet is an invaluable means of finding community and comfort for LGBTQ people, and an unprecedented resource for straight and cisgender people to educate themselves on the issues that the LGBTQ community faces.

Facebook is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when considering websites that are changing the conversation about LGBTQ issues, but something as simple and personal as a status update or a change in settings can send shockwaves through society as a whole. The medium of a social media website allows users to cultivate a very deliberate presentation of themselves for friends and strangers to view, and coming out is becoming a part of that. In a lot of ways Facebook is changing coming out by putting the power back into the hands of LGBTQ people to define themselves.

Facebook has long (well, relatively) been used to come out as gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc. Making an announcement online allows people to avoid the sometimes awkward, always emotionally draining process of constantly coming out to acquaintances, extended family, and old friends. It allows them to come out on their own terms, in their own way. It can be as discreet as changing your “Looking For” setting or as public as a status update. And even with a status update there are more decisions to make—is it too cliché to come out on National Coming Out Day? Should it be serious or light-hearted? Humorous coming out statuses are becoming an art form in and of themselves.

In February 2014 Facebook did something no one had anticipated—it started allowing users to self-identify as genders other than the previous options of “male” and “female.” Previously the only option for transgender users who didn’t identify with the gender binary was to take advantage of loopholes in the system to achieve gender neutral settings. Now there are over 50 gender options to choose from on Facebook, including transgender, FTM/MTF, genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, cisgender, and more, and gender neutral pronouns are only a click away. Facebook even allows users to choose who can see their gender settings, putting trans people completely in control of who they come out to. These changes are amazing in their diversity and scope, though not without problems. These options are only available in the U.S., and there still are no gender neutral pronoun options other than “they.”

Flaws and all, this was a radical moves towards trans-inclusivity in the mainstream. These changes immediately brought the issue of gender identity into the national conversation. Not much in our society causes most people to examine the concept of an essentialist gender binary, and Facebook’s old two-option system supported this. With the addition of more gender options, people have been forced not only to acknowledge the existence of transgender people but to understand the diversity of trans identities outside of the typical gender binary. The Washington Post, Slate, ABC News, CNN, and many more news outlets published definitions of each gender option soon after the changes were made.

This reflects a significant reversal of power dynamics in the process of coming out: Facebook is allowing trans people to come out as their preferred gender, and cisgender people can take their questions and confusion to Google. Coming out as transgender can be even harder than coming out as queer; most people know what “gay” means, while relatively few know what genderqueer or even transgender means. The changes in Facebook and the incipient discussion elsewhere on the internet is a step towards changing the public’s understanding of and respect for trans identities.

Facebook didn’t just include new options for transgender identities—“cisgender” is also an option. This option  has the potential to change how we think about coming out and gender altogether. As with being straight, being cisgender is thought of as the “default setting” for gender identities. Almost everyone is assumed to be cis unless they come out as trans, creating a huge burden on trans people to come out and to explain their identity to others. Cis allies can decrease this burden by joining the conversation about gender by selecting “cisgender,” posting their preferred pronouns, etc, on Facebook to de-center cisgender as the dominant norm. Together trans people and cis people can work together to destroy the idea that being cisgender is the default, and Facebook can be used as a tool to accomplish this.

In an ideal world, no one would ever have to come out of the closet, or feel as if they had to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not because sexual orientation or gender identity wouldn’t matter, because  heterosexual and cisgender would no longer be considered to be the expected norm. Facebook is revolutionizing coming out by trying to accommodate and make visible the wide diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities people align with, and also allowing individuals to come out in increasingly casual ways. Facebook allows people to talk about gender and sexuality just as publicly and casually as they might talk about their favorite movies, and that is socially significant.

Josie Wenig is an undergraduate pursuing a degree in Gender Studies at Indiana University. Their interests are in trans issues and an intersectional analysis of gender.