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57 genders (and none for me?) - Part One

Updated Wednesday, 4 March 2020
Meg Barker explores the world of Facebook gender categories, in the first of two posts.

This content is associated with The Open University's Open degree qualification.                          

People look at Facebook in this cartoon, with varying responses to the range of gender identities on offer

February is a pretty busy time for somebody who writes about sex, gender and relationships, what with the coinciding of LGBT history month and Valentine’s Day. This year, however, I thought I could rest up a bit on February 14, given that I said everything I wanted to say about the celebration of romantic love last Valentine.

I was wrong. Facebook chose February 14 2014 to do one of the most exciting things that has happened in the area of gender and social media for a long time. It changed its gender option so that, instead of choosing from ‘male’ and ‘female’, users could pick from a range of over 50 gender terms, as well as choosing to be referred to as ‘they’ if they didn’t want a gendered pronoun (‘he’ or ‘she’).

As usual, rather than getting into whether this is a good move or a bad move by Facebook, I am going to ask a couple of questions which I think are more helpful: what does this change open up, and what does it close down? Reframing the question like this gets away from polarised ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. Instead it acknowledges the complexity of the situation and the fact that something can simultaneously expand understanding in some ways and constrain it in others.

The main, extremely important, thing that the move to a range of gender options does is to demonstrate to people that gender is not dichotomous. The previous options – like most depictions of gender in western cultures – suggested that everybody could be captured under one of two genders: either you are ‘male’ or you are ‘female’. The new options suggest that this is far too limiting and that there are actually over 50 different possible gender categories, and presumably more.

Why is this important? First, it means that those who don’t experience their gender as ‘male’ or ‘female’ can feel both visible and included, and perhaps this paves the way for further social inclusion, as other organisations and bodies follow Facebook’s example. Second, it means that everybody can see that the model of gender which this huge social networking service adopts is one of diversity rather than dichotomy.

Starting with the first reason, the range of terms now offered means that many people are able to pick the exact label that matches their experience of gender, rather than feeling forced into a box which doesn’t fit them. It may also give many people a sense of greater validity, and encourage policymakers, schools, workplaces and practitioners to move towards similar acceptance of multiple genders (and using the appropriate terminology). The impact of this could be huge, given the current high rates of discrimination against trans* and non-binary gender people, and the associated high rates of mental health problems and suicide in these groups. As somebody who identifies outside the gender binary myself, I can feel this shift. Of course I shouldn’t need a big social networking service to tell me that I’m legitimate, but it does make a palpable difference to how I feel right now writing this post.

Increasing numbers of people find that the gender dichotomy doesn’t capture their experience. For example, the US Human Rights Campaign reports that nearly 10% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* youth were ‘gender expansive’. The recent UK Youth Chances survey found that 5% of those surveyed identified as something other than ‘male’ or ‘female’. These statistics are percentages of the young LGBT people who were willing and able to complete these surveys, not of the population as a whole, but they are certainly suggestive. And, of course, it is not clear how many others would identify in such ways if the wider cultural understanding shifted from gender dichotomy to gender diversity.

This brings us to the second reason why what Facebook did was important. The gender dichotomy is not just problematic for those it excludes, but also for those it includes – because the idea of two, and only two, genders is associated with commonly held attitudes that those genders are ‘opposite’ to each other, and that they involve having to behave in stereotypically ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ ways. When people hold rigidly to such attitudes and try to conform to limited ideals of masculinity and femininity they often struggle. High rates of depression and body image problems in women, and high rates of criminal conviction and suicide in men, have all been linked to limiting and rigid ideas of what it means to be a woman or a man. Also, gender stereotypes limit people’s opportunities in the world in various material ways.

So, while many people will not feel any need to change their previous ‘male’ or ‘female’ status on Facebook, their increased knowledge of the existence of multiple categories and the very different model of gender that these suggest, may help them to hold on to their own gender more lightly and/or to be more flexible in their own ideas about what ‘counts’ as masculine or feminine in ways that are helpful to them.

A few of the specific terms that Facebook has included are worth noting here before we go on. There are words that enable people to identify as neutral or without any gender; words that enable people to say that they combine aspects of masculinity and femininity; words that capture the idea that there are third, fourth or multiple genders; and words that enable people to say that their gender is something that has – or can – change over time (see the bottom of the second post for the complete list). All of these expand our understandings of how gender can operate in interesting and useful ways.

One word that has caused particular debate following the change is ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’. This is the word for people who remain in the gender that they were assigned at birth (unlike trans* people). A lot of people balked at the idea of having to change their status from simply ‘male’ or ‘female’ to something like ‘cis man’ or ‘cis woman’. Of course nobody is forcing them to do this, and it is up to each individual to decide whether they want to make a change or not, but the following might help those who are considering it.

People who aren’t gay, lesbian or bisexual generally wouldn’t claim – any more – that they were just ‘regular people’ or had a ‘normal sexuality’. Rather they would accept the label of ‘heterosexual’ or ‘straight’: we all have a sexuality and it is offensive to suggest that some sexualities are more normal or acceptable than others and therefore don’t require labelling. Similarly, when it comes to gender status, it is useful if people who aren’t trans* use the term cis or cisgender in order to avoid the impression that being trans* is somehow less acceptable or normal.

Of course much of the time gender status (whether you are trans* or cis) just isn’t relevant, and most people would refer to themselves simply as a woman, a man, or a person, regardless of whether they are cis, trans* or otherwise.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
Want to know more about studying social sciences at The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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