“What do you mean — 1.15b active users don’t all fit into two boxes?”
The newsfeeds on twitter buzzed this morning with a seemingly innocuous announcement: FaceBook had renovated its gender options to include identifiers beyond the standard static binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’. AP broke the news with a degree of caps-lock enthusiasm one might have reserved for a major political coup. For many, the impactful relevance will pass by unnoticed; but for others — this policy change introduces a whole new philosophy of actualization. Had FB finally changed its entire schema of gender? My trans friends on FB hesitated their praise: we’ve had false alerts of this sort before. And, really, why the fanfare? Does this incorporation, which enables real gender diversity on the world’s most visited social media platform, deserve to induce such a heraldry of excitement?
Hell yes. And rightly so. It’s noteworthy that a cissexist orthodoxy got publicly shattered on one of the biggest cultural altars out there.
As will become apparent over the forthcoming hours, users so inclined may now select a ‘custom’ option — I know . . . such a term invites right wing jests of ignorance about camshafts, trannies, and tailor-made suits and automobiles. Those whose lack of sense finds an equal only in available spare time for semi-public declamations have an in-built wisecrack in FB’s somewhat awkward “Male/Female/Other” taxonomy of digital avatarhood. Custom. Other. Awkward power phrases over corporeality. But the shift has emphatically occurred: pick and tick gender essentialism has been replaced.
And I’m thrilled. Hooray. I’m willing to declare this a Battle for Endor sized victory.
My highest props to FB for introducing a more comprehensive — and for the most part culturally aware — set of gender referents besides and beyond the static binary. We move from subjugation to intersubjective multiplicities of self-empowerment.
Looking back at the preliminary acts of agency I grasped to announce, define, and re-insert myself in the social milieu as a trans woman, I remember the day I switched my FB to ‘female’. This miraculous recalibration added to the assertion of my personal authenticity, one that was undermining the social ascriptions that had hobbled the very ontology of my self-awareness as female from the start. Like the proper name on a Starbucks coffee cup. The colleague who got the pronouns right. The first ineluctable hit of estrogen. And then the shift on Facebook. Too shy to post an actual picture, the gender marker shift nonetheless radically changed how the platform interacted with me, and how I interfaced with it. I had my first microcosmic experience with renaturalizing my body, concurrent with my identity, as a determinative incarnate statement of “I am who I am, just as I know myself to be.” This wasn’t kilobytes of textual Cartesianism — this was a whole new phenoneology of being-for-the-world. All because of FaceBook. I came out as trans through Facebook — this set of vectors that, while hardly ideal, permitted a reframing of my gender on my time, and mostly my terms.
I say mostly, since for ages FB operated on a strict, static binary allocation. When one joins, the requisite information demanded of their archive pursued that of a birth certificate. Name. Age. Gender. Asking for such details is de rigueur in the data market destinies of the postmodern information cull. But FB was relatively lenient: changing from M to F, as a small piece of coding on a server in God-Knows-Where, was in fact remarkably easier than changing my name: the former required a click, the latter a photocopy of legal certificate.
Nonetheless, FB has been criticised for their rather panoptic enforcement of gender along M and F ascriptions, ones that determine all sorts of subliminal features to the interface, from pronouns used, to icons of representation for events like marriage, to the algorithms of advertisements. (As a woman with some fluency in Korean, I was greeted with all sorts of promotions for double-eyelid plastic surgery — a rather telling indicator of how FB’s market identifiers reduce attributes to restrictive consumer profiles).
Non-binary identified folks, those who wished to keep their gender private, had no options under the previous regime of the subject that was FB’s insistence on gender stratification. This no doubt created all kinds of discomfort, given that our identities are entwined with the environmental circumstances of call and response that construct the discourse of self-articulation. The ethical imperative of “Who am I, and therefore who am I for?” was impeded, needlessly, by the prescriptive dependencies that are exacted upon how we instigate our position as a social relation. This is just a fundamental aspect of beingness that FB provided a rather allegorical happenstance for negotiating. In FB’s world, ESSENCE (you tell us who you are by checking a box) always preceded EXISTENCE (We tell you who we are through self-voicing).
Apparently, they listened. And implemented.
So, given that FB is a magesterial social media zone of communication, one must applaud this systemic recognition of gender diversity. The modern social world is a constant tangle of imposition and constraint — opening up spaces of diversity enables the “I” to be constituted in ways besides third party subjection.
I’ve elected to change my gender to ‘transsexual woman’ — because that is who I am. ‘Transsexual’ is a modifier, not a definer. I am a woman. Obviously, that has not changed. But, to me, there is a necessary political expedience — as trans civil rights gains momentum — to be proud and declarative of who I am and how I have the right to be in this world. This was a meaningful act of declaration for me. However, I recognise that this small change will have no direct impact to the vast majority of users; in short, it’s no skin off your nose. But for gender non-conforming people, this change represents a massive epistemic shift. By stating my reality as a trans woman, I bear out my opposition to the assumption that ‘trans’ denotes some sort of psychical or social shame.
A few preliminary observations about this new set of identifiers:
The silly comments will no doubt echo: there are only two genders, we’re told — it’s DNA, we’re told. (Maybe they want FB and 23andMe to team up in forcing enrolled users to disclose their chromosomes?). Or “What if I want to be a horse?” (Horse isn’t a gender, Mr Science.) Or “I identify as Chthulu.” (Live up to that one!) the usual privileged nonsense of careless dismissals from those with nothing to lose. And so forth.
The honest fact is that one, if one really wishes, can identify as a horse. There’re loads of FB accounts based on people’s pet hamsters, their favorite stuffed toy, and all sorts of existential derivations from the simplistic ecce homo of basic FaceBook identifying of yore. Indeed, there is absolutely no sensible reason against allowing more options, rather than maintaining an ineffectual dialectic of sex — for a social media site! This is a noteworthy shift of alternative straight into the ethical-political of identity as a source of freedom. However, this is also not a fill in the blank situation — which would, I fear, be utilised by essentialist cis people to mock the innovation by cheapening its praxis with jokes and mockery. (Ie: FB has preemptively stopped the intellectual dishonesty of entering ‘Oreo cookie’ and requesting monochromatic pronouns. Har hardy har.) One still must select from a template, but one that offers versatility in how we announce ourselves, and how we connect to other selves through that announcement.
FB also allows the selection of pronoun preferences — so far, in English, restricted to ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘they’. What one selects is not necessarily determined by how one announces their gender.
Curiously, these new options are available only in US English. (I was not able to access them in UK English). This raises fascinating questions as to how these options will be translated, defined, and articulated in other linguistic norms. Moreover, will specific cultural contexts, as represented by those linguistic patterns, be reflected in the options available for those speaking, for example, Thai? Brazilian? Much trans theory recently has debated the usefulness of ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ in non-English cultural contexts, and one hopes more accurate or at least representative options might be included in other language sets. Dictionary translations won’t work: a more nuanced attention to cultural signifiers would be needed for terms that are meaningfully adaptable. This is an enormous and thrilling topic in my view — one that will challenge all kinds of embedded assumptions in language/identity dynamics. It is intriguing that they rolled this out in US-English first.
Not everyone will be happy. You know who I mean. Currently there are no options for “HBSer” or “Gender Abolitionist” or even “Your sex is what I say your sex is!” You can, however, select more than one identifier — one is not restricted to singularity, but a more interesting selection of variables: the list is surprisingly extensive. And for the “I don’t see gender” or “Gender isn’t real” or even “I have the luxury of not caring about it, so it must not exist” . . . one need not put — select, or be constrained by — any gender at all. The outmoded box-ticker style of authorisation has now been replaced, in part, by a model based on complex expression and narrative variety.
So, really . . . A landmark event of egalitarian self-autonomy as a cultural phenomenon in a zone as mainstream as it gets … FaceBook. See why the AP was so excited? This is a demonstrative historical event — people will write about this one for years, as an epochal moment of the emergent techno-somatics of self, the ways of means of encountering the Real. Let’s face it: facebook is the face of social engineering as near-universal experiment as a working model for the potential world. It’s Phillip K Dick kind of futurism, but negotiated as collaborative operation of experimental art, one that actually influences popular opinion in a profound way.
One can in fact, though, identify as “cisgender” — a potentially radical act of self-awareness and circulation of the discourse. Many’s an educational moment has been had over a cup of tea when someone is asked, “But what does cisgender mean?” Cis folks could demonstrate allyship by voluntarily participating in the discursive resetting of the web of interlocution with such a gesture. Moreover, offering cis alongside trans creates a more recognizable sense of the word, and for its relationship to trans as not prioritised. Being cis is a possibility alongside being trans — not a default that one must argue against as personally inappropriate. (Also, so much for ‘cis’ not being a real word. It’s normative in FaceBook policy now — how much more zeitgeist can you get?)
Seriously — as I was discussing with my love tonight — this is a massive revision of the single most widespread epistemic management network in a global sensibility … I mean, the primary screen through which we are coming to view each other, and be viewed by them — this system that is so catholic in the sense of universal — the connective interface that is the network for shaping our collective consciousness … they’re now saying, officially, that the static gender binary is an archaic model. Fuck it.
Go ahead and tally that as a major tide turner in the culture wars of trans equality. This is about social policy regimes at the epistemological level saying — yeah, we need to change.
My sense, however, is that after this announcement passes into routine integration, and despite the bearbaiting by TERFs, fundamentalist religionists, and MRAs — the unholy trinity of antagonism and gender totalitarianism — there will come a pleasurable calm in how this option is only a commonplace aspect. Like how gay marriage has been a decreasingly controversial possibility in life. This is, in my mind, why FB’s change is so important: by implementing gender diversity not just as systemic policy, but as user driven agency, FB offers us a power of self-reference that transforms the everyday into a space more reflective of how creatively unique the identities and freedoms of its users actually are.