A Facebook update last Thursday included the creation of 50 new terms that can be used to describe a user's gender. There are now also three different options for pronouns: him, her, or their.

The new descriptors include terms such as androgynous, bigender, gender fluid and transgender, among many others. Initially the changes apply solely to Facebook's 159 million monthly users in the US, although this is likely to be rolled out to the wider userbase over the coming weeks. They aim to give users the opportunity to describe themselves as they would prefer, rather than in the rigid definitions of male and female. Facebook will also continue to allow users to keep their gender identity private if they wish.

Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who is herself a trans woman and participated in the project, acknowledged that “though there are a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing”, there are some for whom “it means the world”.

“All too often transgender people like myself and other gender nonconforming people are given this binary option, do you want to be male or female? What is your gender? And it’s kind of disheartening because none of those let us tell others who we really are,” she said. “This really changes that, and for the first time I get to go to the site and specify to all the people I know what my gender is.”

Some groups have criticised the move, rejecting the notion of gender selection options beyond the binary male and female terms. Jeff Johnston, an issues analyst for Focus on the Family, an influential US religious organization, stated that “those petitioning for the change insist that there are an infinite number of genders, but just saying it doesn’t make it so”.

However, the transgender movement has spoken in support of the update. Masen Davis, executive director of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, said that they “applaud Facebook for making it possible for people to be their authentic selves online”. Chad Griffin, director of The Human Rights Campaign, stated that Facebook's action is one that [he] hopes others heed in supporting individuals' multifaceted identities”.

The change has come after years of lobbying by activists. Facebook chose the terms as a result of consultations with major gay and transgender lobbyists, and they intend to continue working with such groups. International groups will also be contacted in order to come up with terms that are appropriate in other countries.

Within Facebook, staffers asserted that the new options were never challenged. Alex Schulz, director of growth, said the decision was simple. “Not allowing people to express something so fundamental is not really cool so we did something,” he said. “Hopefully a more open and connected world will, by extension, make this a more understanding and tolerant world.”