Friday 14 February 2014

Gender Variants on Facebook

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate. -William of Ockham, 14th C. 
As I write, the news is less than 24 hours that Facebook now permits its users to specify a range of genders, instead of the usual boring two.

I welcome this development. Some websites allow you to specify Male, Female, or Other, or sometimes I'd rather not say, which seems to be a catch-all option for those who don't quite fall neatly into the two boxes.

Eenie, meenie, miny, mo...
Facebook, according to its press release, had "consulted with gay and transgender advocacy groups" before adding its new categories. To me, it's an acceptance that gender isn't as binary as some people like to think, and an acceptance that transgendered people are just as entitled to their identity as everyone else. In addition to being able to specify your gender identity, you can also specify which pronouns you want used about you.

The news was announced by Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, herself transitioning from male to female.
Harrison: 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. 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.
Predictably, the naysayers of the world have been roused to indignant fury, and some of them have posted their objections in response to the original Facebook announcement.
Nori Herras-Castaneda (TG spokesperson): Any time the transgender community makes advances, there is backlash, and this is a very big advance, so yes, we'll face some problems, no doubt.
Brielle Harrison making her mind up
On the other hand, the news has been welcomed by some transgender groups, such as here. And according to the article I read, the senior Facebook figures, from Mark Zuckerberg down, were comfortable with the change. The change has been offered originally in the US, but there are plans to roll out the change worldwide.

So how many new options are there? Two or three? Half a dozen? Surely not more than a dozen? In fact there are over 50 new options!

I am not sure that this is a step forward! Is it really necessary to provide so many subtle distinctions? Are we really saying that there are not two genders, but instead over 50? And what happens when someone (and there will be someone) whose particular gender variant isn't included, protests that they feel excluded? And what happens to other family relationships? If I identify as a transwoman, am I still someone's son?

I haven't yet found a full list of the categories, but it will be interesting to try to pick one which describes me. Meanwhile, why not try to suggest categories of your own?

No doubt this article will evolve as the news spreads. Comments welcome. What about one from you, Brother William?


Addendum: 15th February 2014

Thanks to Helen Boyd, I have found a website which lists all the possible options, and here they are:
  • Agender
  • Androgyne
  • Androgynous
  • Bigender
  • Cis
  • Cisgender
  • Cis Female
  • Cis Male
  • Cis Man
  • Cis Woman
  • Cisgender Female
  • Cisgender Male
  • Cisgender Man
  • Cisgender Woman
  • Female to Male
  • FTM
  • Gender Fluid
  • Gender Nonconforming
  • Gender Questioning
  • Gender Variant
  • Genderqueer
  • Intersex
  • Male to Female
  • MTF
  • Neither
  • Neutrois
  • Non-binary
  • Other
  • Pangender
  • Trans
  • Trans*
  • Trans Female
  • Trans* Female
  • Trans Male
  • Trans* Male
  • Trans Man
  • Trans* Man
  • Trans Person
  • Trans* Person
  • Trans Woman
  • Trans* Woman
  • Transfeminine
  • Transgender
  • Transgender Female
  • Transgender Male
  • Transgender Man
  • Transgender Person
  • Transgender Woman
  • Transmasculine
  • Transsexual
  • Transsexual Female
  • Transsexual Male
  • Transsexual Man
  • Transsexual Person
  • Transsexual Woman
  • Two-Spirit

  • And once again I've learned some new words. What does neutrois mean? Or transfeminine? And how does Trans* Female differ from Trans Female? And what is the difference between Transgender Man and Transgender Male? Do we really need all these terms?

    Ahead of the times: CK one
    Interestingly, the term I use to define myself, crossdresser, or male-to-female crossdresser, isn't even listed! Nor is transvestite, or crossdreamer. One can, however, identify as pangender (which I assume means "all gender") or neither (which I assume means "neither male nor female").

    I can completely relate to the idea that this is supposed to be a wholly inclusive list, catering to every infinitesimal point on the gender spectrum, including those who identify with all points of it, and none, and leaving nobody left out. And yet, by creating this list, I can't help thinking that Facebook has simply added to the confusion, to the morass of terminology which makes it nearly impossible for people like me, looking at gender, to find any sort of clarity.

    So which one are you?


    Addendum: 21st February 2014

    My thanks to Tasi for drawing my attention to Stephen Colbert's satirical (and hilarious) sketch which sends up transphobia in the media. You can watch the whole segment here. He lets loose with both barrels on the Facebook gender spectrum too, including the curious "asterisk" options.
    Colbert: I believe that's when you were born an asterisk, but deep inside you believe you're an ampersand!

    Addendum: 15th March 2014

    Helen Boyd drew my attention to this article in the Boston Globe, which attempts to explain some of the new gender language for outsiders, novices and the generally perplexed (in which I include myself).

    The article explains the mysterious asterisk, whose existence before had puzzled me. I can see that people are reaching out for new forms of language to describe gender variants, both as a means for people to express their identity with clarity and precision, and as a means to avoid giving offence to people who find themselves inadvertently improperly referred to.

    I already infer that the notion of cis as meaning "the opposite of trans" is borrowed from organic chemistry. It originally referred to the arrangement of groups around a carbon-carbon double bond. However, the article says that the asterisk is meant to be taken as a wildcard, which can therefore stand for anything, so trans* means that you can insert your own word instead of the *, a practice which is borrowed from computer search syntax (where it is at least 30 years old).

    This article also talks about gender-neutral pronouns, a phenomenon which I am opposed to, despite my sympathies, for reasons I describe here.


    Addendum: 3rd May 2014

    Australia's High Court has just voted unanimously that some people (backed by medical advice) can have their gender legally recognised as "non-specific". On birth certificates, passports and the like, the letter X is used in place of M or F. This is not considered the same as Intersex. This has been partly driven by an individual called Norrie. You can read the news report here, or there is a discussion from the New York Times here.


    Addendum: 8th October 2014

    I came across a wonderful and well-thought out discussion of this same topic by Lal Zimman on the OUP Blog.


    1. Grok posting. "I would rather not say" would seem to be the most practical strategy for a web site. Unless it is specifically intended for the transgender community.

    2. I more or less identify as transfeminine.

      I don't really understand why they felt the need a make a list when they could have just given people the option of typing it in themselves. They already have that functionality for religious and political views. And it's that odd they missed crossdresser, especially as that's one of the few that's generally known and recognized by the mainstream cis populace.

      Still, overall, I'm very happy FB is finally getting around to doing something like this, (even though the changes haven't quite reached us here in Canada yet...).

      1. Many thanks for your comment Ashley. Can you elaborate on why you chose this particular term to identify with?


      2. Well, first of all I should say it's not a term I insist on, there are others that work just fine. I still use crossdresser in some contexts, though I now think of it more as a description of what I do rather than who I am.

        Transfeminine, however, seems to be the most concise way of describing how I feel about my gender. To me it means "on the female end of the spectrum," without specifying exactly where. That is, it says I'm definitely not a man without making a statement about whether or not I'm woman. And that suits me for two reasons: Firstly, as I am still quite unsure about the extent to which I want to transition (either socially or medically), I don't feel I'm ready to commit to identifying as a woman. And secondly, while I am generally uncomfortable with being seen or treated as male, the category of "strictly a woman" seems somewhat limiting to me. I think I'd like to be a little more non-binary than that.

      3. Thanks Ashley. I really appreciate your reply.

        I can understand why you chose that word, but my question is: what do you think the word means to someone who is unfamiliar with it? In other words, if you use that word a lot, isn't there a chance of being misunderstood?


      4. Well, I would never just tell someone "I'm transfeminine" without explaining what I mean by it, even at a trans setting like a support group.

        Also, I never use that word when I come out to people. I always say "I'm transgender," and then immediately explain that I'm not currently considering hormones or surgery. ('Cause, you know, most cis people think transgender = sex change).

        Coming out to close friends or family is always like an hour long conversation anyways, so there's plenty of time to explain what I feel (and don't feel) about my gender. And when coming out to people I'm not that close to, it's sufficient to say "I'm more comfortable dressing as a girl" and leave it at that. They don't need to know all the details.

      5. Many thanks for your reply Ashley.

        I guess what I am hoping for is an agreed vocabulary so that everyone can be sure of what they are talking about. It's pretty hard for people (even me) to know what other people mean when they bandy around these woolly terms; and some people can get quite miffed (unjustifiably, IMHO) if the wrong terms are used of them.

        It sounds like you take time to explain yourself to people, which is very helpful.


    3. neutrois is a non-binary identity which sort of equates to "genderless";

      trans* female and trans female are probably both offered because some people like the asterisk and some don't;

      trans feminine, transgender male, transgender man and so forth are probably there due to people's different understandings of sex and gender, and thereof of themselves;

      transvestite is often considered pejorative in the US, which I guess is why they don't have it; and presumably they don't consider crossdresser (the usual US equivalent) or crossdreamer to be gender identities at all;

      personally I went for genderqueer, though I'd have preferred femme if that had been an option; maybe they'll add it later :)

      1. Many thanks for your information, Jonathan. I am asking these questions because you were willing to engage with the debate: no criticism is implied!

        What is so important about that asterisk, that some people need it and some people don't? Even as a crossdresser I cannot see its significance. Why has it been necessary to coin a new word, "neutrois" to describe someone? (And when I looked on the Neutrois website, it seemed to define the term as a catch-all for anyone who feels they are uncomfortable with binary gender allocation. This doesn't seem very precise to me).

        "Transvestite" is probably pejorative everywhere in the English-speaking world; on the other hand, there are those (such as Grayson Perry) who use the word very openly to describe themselves.

        What (to you) would the word "femme" mean? And how would you ensure that people understood what you intended it to mean? And why would "femme" be any better than the 50 or so other terms, which were clearly intended to capture every possible nuance of gender identity?


      2. Grok posting. I took a look at the neutrons link, and it was admitted that the word is subject to individual interpretation. Such vagueness implies that only three terms are worthwhile: man, woman, and "gender variant."

        Gender neutral pronouns have been associated with feminism, as well as transgenderism. It has been suggested that such may be borrowed from a language which does have gender neutral pronouns. (I believe there is a wikipedia article about this).

        By the way, there is a glitch with my computer; it keeps changing a few of my words to something else; I did not intend to post about a subatomic particle.

      3. Hi Grok. Your post made me laugh. Hey, I'm not a proton OR an electron. I'm a neutron!

        It reminds me of an old joke. These two atoms are walking down the road, and one says: hey, I've just lost an electron. The other says: are you sure? And the first one says: yes! I'm positive!

        I've been reading a bit more about neutrois, having never encountered the term before, and it seems to be people who wish to reject gender at all. Rather than saying "I'm not really anything", they can say "I am neutrois".

        I sympathise with people who wish to create gender-neutral pronouns in English, but I loathe what this might do to our language, so I oppose it. This was, in fact, the subject of my very first post on this blog.


      4. Grok posting. Yes, that is a clever joke. If I understand correctly, there is a further distinction regarding neutrons. Some people may view themselves as a mixture of masculine and feminine. Others may feel that they have no gender. Myself? Male gender identity. But my basic personality could be described as androgynous; and in fact a friend has said that.

    4. Grok posting. I looked at your post about Pronomial Confusion. Regarding the invented terms-I think they are forced, therefore they don't work. I suppose that new pronouns could be adopted as slang. Perhaps originating in another language?

      1. Hi Grok. Some of the gender-neutral pronouns seem to be borrowed from other languages, but I don't think they will ever sound right, no matter where they come from.


    5. Androgyne. (Genderqueer)

      Many years ago I was filling out one of those online tg profiles and I was about to mark the box "crossdresser" and I realized I pretty much looked the same whether in male or female mode (or anything in between). I had been going out publicly en femme since '95 and in 2001 I grew out my hair. I realized that "CD'ing" for me simply meant grabbing a purse and walking out the door. I felt a bit uneasy marking that box since I wear jeans 95-99% of the time anyway and didn't feel like I was crossdressing. Then I changed my mind and checked "androgynous".
      A friend sent me that link and I discovered I wasn't alone. But when people in the mainstream ask me how I identify myself I tell them "crossdresser" ('I'm an androgyne' just doesn't sound as sexy) because it's easier for them to conceptualize.
      On another site the only 'either/or...neither/nor' option was "genderqueer" so that's my status and I'm sticking with it!

      All the other alphabet soup terms simply add to the confusion. I haven't the foggiest idea of what half of them mean.

      As you get more involved in this community you see lots of advice (especially online) about "what it means to be a woman". One of the advantages of being androgynous is that you stop worrying about where everyone else is on the gender spectrum. Over the years I've found that I don't have that much common ground with TS's who talk about hormones, legal name change and doctors. But over time I've also felt less in common with CD's. Makeup, dresses, accessories ... yada yada yada. In a past life it was all very exciting. Today, not so much.

      1. Hi Annette, and many thanks for posting your insights. It sounds like you have found your place in all this and are quite comfortable there.