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Facebook's Gender Identities

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Last week Facebook made news by announcing it was providing a much broader menu of options to its users with respect to sex and gender identity. Their new drop-down "custom" field added, by last count, 53 variations to that category.

As expected, there was a rush of praise from the LGBT community, and condemnation from Fox News and its reactionary brethren. On further analysis, I believe this is significant progress yet not as momentous a change as some imagine.

The progress is noteworthy because it is empowering individuals to identify as they choose, and giving them a smorgasbord of abundance. What was once limited to "male"/"female" now expands to all the possible ways trans and gender-nonconforming people identify to themselves, their friends and community. That can only help the individuals develop self-confidence and a stronger sense of self-worth and, in so doing, educate the general population to all the varieties of gender identification and expression that exist.

Most of the choices are redundancies of commonly accepted terms, which have traction in very small subgroups within the community. When I taught second-year med students at Georgetown Medical School last week, I listed some of those variations, knowing that they had probably heard some of them over the past few years. The Facebook list is more extensive, yet in many ways it simply adds minor variations with which to divide up the gender pie. For instance, what was once an overarching sociopolitical category called "transgender," and what was once included as a major community subgroup, "MTF transsexual," is now broken up into "MTF," "male to female," "transsexual," and a great number of variants, including "transgender," "transsexual," "transgender female," "transgender woman," "transsexual female," "transsexual woman," "transgender person," "transsexual person," "trans female," "trans woman," "trans person," "trans* female," "trans* woman," "trans* person." Many of these may be gone in the next major Facebook update or remain in use only within the subcommunities in which they are relevant. The broader terms, such as "transgender" and "trans," will continue until and unless another term rises to prominence as the language evolves.

For all intents and purposes, for the general public, at least, all those terms I just listed refer to the same phenomenon and are just forms of regional and subcultural dialects. And while some members of the gay community find this explosion of identifiers strange, I would just remind them of those identities currently or previously in common use in the gay and lesbian communities: "top," "bottom," "versatile," "twink," "twunk," "sandwich," "bear," "cub," "otter," "drag queen," "dyke," "bull dyke," "diesel dyke," "sport dyke," "power dyke," "stone butch," "soft butch," "femme," "soft femme," "lipstick," "boi," "stud," "hasbian," "LUG," "drag king," "gayelle." The distinctions among some of these are as inconsequential to the larger population as some of the distinctions among the trans listing above.

None of these rises to the level of legal or governmental categories, beyond the basic "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "transgender" categories. At a time when saying "gay" and "lesbian" has finally become acceptable and the trans community is still waiting to hear the administration speak the word "transgender" as freely as they say "gay," the Facebook listings can be considered a major distraction. At a time when our health administrations still can't add one single trans category to their surveys, however they want to define or categorize it, the Facebook listings can seem mere affectation.

But they're not, because culture develops from the bottom, and this explosion of self-expression will lead to official acceptance in one form or another in the decades to come. Thirty years ago I would have been thrilled to see political acceptance of the "transsexual" community. Now that there is growing acceptance of the "transgender" community, I am not going to quibble over the specific term. Historically, we've moved from being defined as "inverts" by Kraft-Ebing and the German pathologists of the 19th century, "transvestites" in Magnus Hirschfeld's Weimar Germany, and "transsexuals" in Harry Benjamin's New York and John Money's Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to today's "transgender" and the short form, "trans."

More important, from a cultural standpoint, is the listing of terms for those who present or identify on a spectrum between "male" and "female" or outside these categories altogether. "Gender fluid," "gender variant," "genderqueer," "gender nonconforming," "agender," "bigender," and "two-spirit" -- these are much newer terms to most members of the public and represent people who have always existed but did not share their identification with the general public. Just as there are only two basic categories of sex but very many intersex conditions between the two poles, there are two basic cultural forms of gender expression, varying from society to society, but with a spectrum of variations in between, and with many people rejecting those categories entirely.

I've written before that I believe the greatest contribution the trans community can make to society is to encourage a reevaluation of our codes of masculinity and femininity. The women's movement began to do that in the '60s, and we can challenge the rigidity of those codes in some of our subcultures and, by softening the edges, allow greater freedom of expression and greater happiness.

And what might be the most interesting aspect of this Facebook exercise is the introduction of the term "cisgender" to the world. "Cisgender" is simply a different formulation of the term "non-transgender," a polite way of categorizing a group of people without a negatory prefix. A variant was first used in Germany in 1914. But its greatest impact is in forcing people who are not trans -- and that means 99.7 percent of the population -- to realize that simply being non-transgender does not equate to a privileged position vis-à-vis the transgender population. And while statistically it is clearly the default mode, it is enlightening for everyone to realize just how diverse and wonderful sex and gender really are. Who knows? Maybe you might actually be intersex and not really know it, or want to break out of the gender expression you believe has been imposed upon you for many years. Now's your chance.

And Facebook still has some tweaking to do. There is no choice for "human."

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