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Brie Harrison Headshot

Custom Gender

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For the past 14 years, I've had the privilege of working for some of Silicon Valley's most prominent companies. Currently, I'm an engineer at Facebook, and for the last few months I've worked on a project that we just announced today: the ability to identify yourself using a custom gender.

If you don't know exactly what that means, you are probably like most people who have never questioned their own gender identity. Yet for those of us who have lived our lives not quite falling into the binary description of "traditionally male" or "traditionally female," this small change is a world of difference.

I am one of those people -- a transwoman, meaning a male to female transsexual. Even before I realized this, my life was anything other than traditional. My parents were barely 20 years old when they found out I was on the way, and they divorced before I had completed the third grade. Growing up, my brother and I were shuffled back and forth between them so much that I had moved more than 40 times before I was even 15 years old.

Despite the love and care that my parents and their eventual spouses offered, I always feared that their pride in me would be shattered beyond repair were they to ever find out who I really am. In the end, I dropped out of high school without a degree and began a long string of jobs at local fast food chains and retail businesses.

So how did I go from there to being a senior engineer in Silicon Valley -- a position usually occupied by people with advanced degrees in technology and computer science?

I received my first computer, a Commodore Amiga, in the very early 90s. I started programming little things, mostly games and such, using skills I taught myself from books in my spare time. In 1999, during the dot-com boom, my coworkers encouraged me to apply for a job that would use my computer skills for a company in San Francisco. To my surprise, I got the job. I vowed not to let this opportunity to go to waste, and I spent my every last dime to buy programming books and make sure that I could do the job that I had been accepted for.

From there, I got better at programming and advanced my career, all the way to Google and Netflix before joining Facebook. As I built my career, I also began to discover who I was as a person.

I knew I was different from a very early age, but we moved so often I had no one to confide in or to help me understand myself. The only stable contacts in my life were my parents, and for all that they loved me, it wasn't a conversation they were ever going to be ready to have. Don't get me wrong, I did have friends and I even managed to tell a few of them, but it wasn't something they knew how to help me with. They were silently accepting but we never really got in to the details. It wasn't until my father passed away that I knew it was time to get over my fears and live my
life. Although I technically only began my transition in the last nine months, it has taken me a lifetime to get here.

We don't consciously talk a lot about gender in our society. I'm not here to say that's a good or a bad thing, but I am extremely proud to work on something as important to me as the ability to add a custom gender to your Facebook profile. I joined this company because of its goal to be a place for people to be their absolute authentic self, while offering control over who sees that identity. But I stay for something else: I began my outward transition when I joined, and when I did I promised myself that I wouldn't hide who I was anymore. To be honest, I was petrified by all of this. Yet at this company I've received an overwhelming outpouring of support from my
coworkers that is at once exhilarating and humbling.

Even more, I've been given the opportunity to give back and to help prevent others like me from suffering in silence for the majority of their lives. Since I've joined Facebook, I've attended many events where I can speak to my background and answer questions. The company's presence and donations at these events have helped countless others who feel they have nowhere else to turn, and now through Facebook I am helping millions of people to be able to express their true selves. I am resolved to continue aiding others like me whenever I can, both on a personal and professional level.

Not all industries are like this one, and not all people are so accepting. It's because of this that I am so proud of what we launched today. We at Facebook believe that an open and connected world will ultimately make the world more accepting. This change may only affect a small number of people, but to them, it's the beginning of something that makes a world of difference.

For more information about the new changes at Facebook, head here.