Facebook’s Shift on Gender Draws Catholic Criticism

Critics say the website’s decision to include more than 50 gender options beyond male and female is wrongheaded, but also reflective of how the culture currently understands sexuality.

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook’s decision to expand gender options available to the website’s users beyond male and female is receiving criticism from Catholic quarters across the country, with many calling the move misguided, but hardly a surprise.

The reactions come after the social-media platform announced the change on its "Diversity" page on Feb. 13. Facebook said the move was about making sure users “feel comfortable being [their] true, authentic self.”

“An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just ‘male’ or ‘female,’" the statement said. “So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.”

Facebook says it collaborated with a group of leading LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) advocacy organizations to come up with an “extensive list of gender identities that many people use to describe themselves.” Users can now select from more than 50 custom gender options, ranging from “trans” to “gender fluid.”

Prior to the change, Facebook had simply allowed users to choose which pronoun gender they’d like to be referred to publicly on the website: male (he/his), female (she/her) or neutral (they/their).

Catholic commentators said the shift reveals a flawed understanding of “gender” that’s gaining traction in the United States.

“Facebook undoubtedly made the change because of pressure from the [transgender community], who feel oppressed by reality,” said Dale O’Leary, author of The Gender Agenda. “They don’t like the fact that there are only two sexes and they were made either male or female. They want to choose for themselves.”

When asked about Facebook’s shift, John Grabowski, a moral theology professor at The Catholic University of America, referenced remarks by Pope Benedict XVI, who said that the separation of “gender” from “sex” was “one of the great errors of the modern world,” leading to “the dissolution of the concept of human nature.”

“We become our own creators by naming our own reality — sexual and otherwise,” Grabowski said, explaining that the trend contradicts the Church’s teaching that “we are made for communion — not self-creation.”

Matt Warner, a former Register blogger who writes on social media and cultural trends, said his initial reaction upon hearing the move was to feel compassion for men and women who struggle with their identities, but didn’t think Facebook’s decision to allow custom genders was much of a solution.

“I don’t think it helps to allow people to publicly label themselves as such or to legitimize such struggles as healthy or ordered,” said the Texas resident and founder of Flocknote, a Christian social-networking service. “Until we are able to engage these problems at the more fundamental level of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality, we will continue to see these kinds of things.”


A Sign of the Times?

Catholic critics may have found Facebook’s policy change unfortunate, but they certainly weren’t surprised by it.

“I guess you could call it a sign of the times — just not a very hopeful one,” said Grabowski, adding that Facebook’s move was motivated by “the desire to be as ‘inclusive’ as possible when it comes to people’s own self-defined sexuality,” a trend that is “our new cultural orthodoxy.”

Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, director of the Institute for Marital Healing located near Philadelphia, says the increased prevalence and acceptance of multiple conceptions of gender can be linked to a number of factors, including a rise in “narcissism.”

“You think you’re the mini god of your own world; you can do whatever you want to do,” he said, describing what he called dominant trends in society.

Fitzgibbons also pointed to the collapse of the nuclear family and the growth of hostility towards children as factors that have led to a spike in individuals claiming to be transgendered.

He also noted the active role that social-media sites such as Facebook are taking to promote progressive values.

“The media is pushing this, pushing transgender sexuality, and pushing a hostile agenda toward the Judeo-Christian faith,” he said. “This is part of the expression of anger against God’s plan for the human person.”

But Warner said Facebook’s announcement was “less an attempt to push a social agenda” and more “a reflection of where the culture is already at.”

“It's also a great reality check for culture warriors everywhere,” he said. “And I hope it revitalizes our energies toward strengthening families and supporting our loved ones, so we can help people who may struggle with such things.”


Attention-Generating Business Model

Whether part of a push or a response to changing times, Facebook’s move isn’t the only recent instance of progressive conceptions of gender and sexuality taking hold in media. Last week, Amazon released the pilot episode for Transparent, a half-hour sitcom about an adult man who begins to live as a woman. And websites like YouTube and even Google have promoted same-sex “marriage” in recent months.

Pia de Solenni, a Catholic theologian living in Seattle, argues that these values are finding traction in social media for practical rather than philosophical reasons.

“It’s part of the business model,” she said. “Social media needs to constantly generate attention; otherwise, it can’t function as a connecting medium. Shock value is an easy way to get attention.”

De Solenni says Facebook’s move demonstrates that social “progressives” tend to be “much savvier about communicating their values and their vision” using newer mediums used by a younger audience, but she says Catholics can fight back by learning the tools of the trade.

“There's a great opportunity here for people of traditional values to be reaching out to the younger generation to offer something different than what they've experienced all of their short lives,” she said.

Some are saying that’s what Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert did on his Feb. 18 episode. Colbert, a Catholic who was the keynote speaker at last fall’s Al Smith Dinner in New York City, often mocks socially conservative talking points, but in this instance, he directed his humor at progressive values, joking that Facebook’s plethora of new gender options “make [my] brain broke” and weren’t inclusive enough because they didn’t include “pirate.”

The Catholic comedian also took direct aim at one of Facebook’s most ill-defined gender choices, which is listed as “Trans*” on its “Diversity” page. Quipped Colbert, “I believe that's when you’re born an asterisk but deep inside you believe you're an ampersand.”

Colbert’s performance was called “nasty” by John Aravosis, a LGBT activist, but it had the audience in stitches.


Wider Implications

Catholic critics agreed that Facebook’s shift on gender identity is part of something much bigger and could have consequences far beyond the realm of social media.

“I think we are going to see further reduction of sexuality to personal self-expression and further redefinition of marriage to be anything which makes individuals happy,” said Grabowski.

Calls for “further reductions” of traditional gender constructs emerged only days after Facebook announced the change. In an online article for The Guardian entitled “Facebook Should Remove All Gender Options Instead,” Jane Fae wrote that “it would have been braver to remove gender completely — and spare us gender-targeted ads.”

Fitzgibbons observed that the Facebook move fits with a pattern of targeting youth utilized by proponents of progressive gender identities. Other instances include efforts to push gender neutrality in school classrooms and to force acceptance of transgendered behaviors in the school, such as a boy using the girls' restroom.

“Our youth are so vulnerable,” he said. “[Proponents] are targeting them, encouraging them to do whatever they want to do and develop behaviors that will harm them. They don’t care about youth.”

Fitzgibbons says Catholics can respond to the acceptance of progressive gender identities by speaking the “truth about the human person,” something he says the Church and parents have failed to do sufficiently over the past 45 years in their capacities as teachers.

“To protect youth, we have to help them appreciate the goodness of who they are, the goodness of their God-given masculinity or God-given femininity. That’s how we can combat these hostile movements.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.