Identity, +1

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday July 27, 2011
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Recently, Google decided to out-Facebook Facebook, launching its own social networking site, Google+. While still technically in beta, the site had had a meteoric rise, attracting over 20 million users in a mere three weeks since its announcement.

I, like many others, begged myself into Google+ (a person has to be invited during this beta phase). A friend of mine was kind enough to pass me an invitation hidden in a shared story a day or two after the public announcement. While I've yet to find the site to be the amazing game changer many have hoped for, it is a refreshing experience in the wake of what is often an overwhelming experience with Facebook.

Yet not all is perfect. On the relatively minor end of things is Google's insistence on a gender marker on site. In its initial form, it offered male, female, and other as options, but required these to be seen by all users of Google+. It wasn't long after that launch that officials revised this policy, allowing users to hide gender altogether, much like they allow Google+ users to hide their education, work histories, or other personal information.

When I first read about these options, I was happy, but reserved. I felt it was great that they were allowing an option beyond the typical binary. I was less happy that the third option was practically a textbook example of "othering" people who opt out of said binary. While I personally am more than happy to choose a female option in such forms, not all wish to. Many might like to fill in their own options, or have other systems in place allowing for a wider spectrum of possible identities.

That Google has also made it an option to hide gender altogether is a step in the right direction, but aside from marketing and demographics, I see little reason for such a question in the first place. In reminds me, in a way, of the eternal question of gender markers on driver's licenses. Why are such things needed, given they do not change any rules or allowances for driving?

It wasn't long after Google+ launched in beta – but before it had even resolved the visibility of gender markers on the site – that a bigger issue cropped up. Accounts were being suspended over the "realness" of some people's names on the site, with Google contradicting already established company policy on the use of pseudonyms within Google properties, and at least one Google employee asking people to report "fakes" on the site.

Initially this seemed largely limited to Second Life avatar accounts and a few business accounts, but soon it spread to celebrities like William Shatner and longtime tech figures like 3ric Johanson. As I write this people are still seeing their accounts shuttered due to claims that their name is not valid, with many of them reopened hours later without comment.

I have not to date heard of a case of a transgender person facing a challenge of the validity of their name on Google+, but I'm sure it's going to happen sooner or later.

Google+ tells you to use the name "you are known by" – whether that is your legal name or not – but does not give clear guidelines on how you prove such if you are suspended.

For a transgender person, this could be difficult. Some may not be able to prove their name is in "common use," depending on how they're presenting their gender identity in their day-to-day lives. Some localities can make it difficult for them to gain legal paperwork in their name, requesting surgery before updating a birth certificate, or even turning down legal name changes based on ill-founded concerns over the reasons for doing so.

For a transgender person, much of what we do is create our own identity. We step away from the constructions and conventions that were started when we were both – or even before – and forge our own path in this world. We choose our own name, our own gender, and our own identity. We become exactly who we wish to be.

One of the most fertile grounds for transgender people to explore their identity has been the Internet. Rather than being burdened with their birth name, one could choose whatever pseudonym they wished. One could create a self that they wished to be, and experience – in some fashion – what life was within that being. Heck, you did not need to even limit yourself to a singular form, and could change identities as often as some change their socks.

In this era of social media, however, we are being slowly pushed to conform to an identity. Facebook requires a real name, though it is uneven in enforcement. Google+ has a policy that seems to be shifting daily, and even people using their real, legal names have had to prove they truly exist.

For many transgender people, we simply do not have the luxury or desire to use a real – as in the name one was born with – name. For those just coming out of the closet, that could also be disastrous. For us, it's not about any attempt to defraud others, but to finally be ourselves in the digital world at large.

So to Google+ and others out there: police what you feel you need to police to keep your network viable, but let us be ourselves. Our identities are ours, and we're the ones who get to decide if we wish to share it with you, and how we wish to do the same.

Gwen Smith has yet to see her Google+ page taken down – so far. You can also find her online at