Apple has taken a step to make its emoji more inclusive and less binary with the additional of a "gender-neutral" option for nearly every human emoji in its system.
The latest iOS software update started rolling out earlier this week to iPhone users, and with it came dozens of new emoji for users to add to their text messages, contact names, and social media posts. Many of the new emoji, as documented by Emojipedia, focus on inclusivity: There are symbols for deaf and blind people, and options to choose the skin color of each person in emoji featuring multiple people.
But one of the starkest changes comes with the addition of a third option for the slew of human-like emoji — from rock star, to zombie, to dancing twins — that's neither the female nor male-appearing choices that have historically existed on the iOS emoji keyboard. The third "gender neutral" option for each human emoji is meant to appear more gender-inclusive and androgynous, with hair that falls above the shoulders and an outfit that's gray rather than the gender-signaling purple-clad female and blue-wearing male icons.
The addition of a third option for human emoji has already been met with praise online from members of the LGBTQ community, who say they're happy to have an emoji that looks more like them. Instead of having to pick an icon sporting traditional gendered characteristics — like the male emoji with mustaches and female emoji with eyelash-lined eyes — users now have "a whole new way to express themselves that isn't gendered," says Jean-Marie Navetta, a spokesperson for a LGBTQ-inclusive family organization called PFLAG.
"Anytime we can make anytime feel more seen and included, it's a good thing," Navetta told Business Insider. "We're starting to recognize when people need other ways to express themselves … We are really thinking about this in ways we haven't in the past."
'Emojis are the language we use'
Apple is not the first tech company to produce a gender-neutral emoji, but it may be the most impactful one to do so. The always-online Generation Z — generally categorized as people born after 1995 — overwhelmingly use iPhones, with a recent survey from Piper Jaffray finding that 83% of teens surveyed have an Apple-made phone. Other surveys have found that this is the same age group in which only two-thirds identify as heterosexual, and 35% know someone who uses gender-neutral "they/them" pronouns.
"Emojis are the language we use," said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the deputy executive director for GLSEN, a nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ-inclusive education and schools. "To have queer and non binary folk represented in emojis, that's especially important for young people. They're able to grow up with this language."
That's not to say the new emoji is perfect: An androgynous emoji representing all of the "otherness" beyond the male-female gender binary can forward the idea that there's one way that all non-binary and genderqueer people look. But Willingham-Jaggers told Business Insider that there are an "innumerable number" of ways queer people look, and providing just one other non-gendered option is a step by Apple to illustrate that "representation matters."
The rollout of the new gender-neutral emoji comes the same week that Apple CEO Tim Cook — the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 firm — spoke out about why he decided to publicly come out in 2014. In an interview with People en Español, Cook said he was motivated to come out after receiving letters from children who were struggling with their own sexual orientation.
"This is the innovation that happens with LGBTQ people in power," Willingham-Jaggers said.
The emoji's gendered history
It wasn't too long ago that emoji weren't even developed enough to have female and male options.
Emoji historian Jeremy Burge, who founded the icon database Emojipedia, told Business Insider that early emoji — those that went beyond the simple laughing and crying smiley faces — "weren't necessarily intended" to have a gender: For Apple, the early "dancer" emoji was a female-seeming figure in a red dress, and the only "police officer" emoji looked like the male icon in a police hat.
Google's first attempt at creating emoji without apparent gender was back in 2015, when it briefly replaced its human icons with yellow blob-like figures (the dancer from this generation is my personal favorite). However, Google retired these blobs in 2017 to make way for human emoji with various skin tone options.
But in 2016, the Unicode Consortium — which sets the industry standard for text and emoji across various platforms — decided to add explicitly male and female variations for each human emoji, meaning that the genders for these new emoji were embedded right into their code. These added variations gave platforms the ability to design their own male and female-presenting emoji as they wished.
The following year, Unicode approved the addition of gender-inclusive variations for the child, adult, and older adult emoji, according to Burge. These three gender-neutral icons then made their way to iOS and Android devices in 2017.
It took another year for Google to realize it could easily implement a gender-neutral version of each human emoji without Unicode having to approve new icons, Burge said. While platforms were busy designing newly gendered emoji in 2016, the Unicode standard for each "neutral" emoji that didn't specify gender — back when the only "dancer" emoji was female and the only "police officer" was male — sat unused and unsupported.
It wasn't until September of this year that Google rolled out a software update for Android devices to include gender-neutral human emoji options when the code didn't specify a gender.
Unicode only recently approved an expanded set of gender-neutral emoji, which are now available with Apple's latest iOS software update. Apple's new version of iOS is the first to include a slew of gender-neutral options beyond the basic child, adult, and older adult, Burge told Business Insider.
Burge anticipates that the full expanse of gender-neutral emoji options will come to Android devices and other platforms in the first half of 2020.
"I'm glad to see more people feeling represented by the options on their emoji keyboard, as not everyone feels they fit into a binary gender world," Burge told Business Insider. "This is also huge win for consistency as people are no longer required to choose which gender of face palm or shrug they want to use."