February 27, 2014

The Social Evolution of Gender

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

In February 2014, Facebook updated the choices that users can use to describe their gender. Their options for gender were previously limited to “male” and “female” but it seems that Facebook is acknowledging both the cultural patterns outside our dominant cultural norms and the ability of people to define themselves, particularly in social settings.

These, according to Slate.com are the 56 choices for “gender” on Facebook.

·         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

Source: Slate.com

I think they forgot female and male, which are still choices. This list is what pops up when you choose the third option of “Custom” when you try to set gender.

The social norms of dominant culture have only accepted the two categories, of male and female, as legitimate gender categories. While many other cultures had or have more than two genders, we in the United States have not historically adopted more than the two.  In school we teach that there are two sexes, male and female, and we only talk about the social roles and gender identity of men and women as normative.

When we do acknowledge a diversity of sex and gender categories and identities within an individual, we often medicalize it and call it a syndrome or even a disease, much as we did in the past with homosexuality.

In the new (2013) Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Gender Identity Disorder has now been replaced as a diagnosis with “Gender Dysphoria.”The difference lies with less a focus on diversity between body/sex and identity/gender and more on a focus of distress with having one’s own gender identity at odds with what others would assume. While this is a step forward, since it does focus more on mental health and experiences, it does not fully contest the categorization of such a situation as a deviant reality.

Keeping in mind that Facebook is a social networking site, they are doing their members a service by allowing them to express their own gender identity with words they choose. If one is looking someone up in order to be socially interactive, it can help people find the people they are looking for by clarifying their expression of gender.

On the other hand, let’s take a deeper sociological look at what’s going on here.

Facebook (and many others) have always mixed-up sex and gender! The use of the choices Female and Male in a category labeled Gender is, well, a problem.

Sex is a physical construct involving chromosomes, hormones, and body parts – the correct pronouns would be male and female. Gender is a social (human) construct involving, yes, personal identity, but also social roles based on those identities – the appropriate pronouns include man, woman, girl, boy. Other mammals can have sex differentiation (based on body structure) but we don’t call a female chimpanzee a woman because they don’t take part in human cultural patterns.

Both sex and gender technically have more than two categories. Intersex is when one’s sex is neither male nor female or it is both male and female. There are people who are XY females and XX males, and many other categories of intersex. Likewise, gender can have any number of categories, based on the cultural patterns in the society at hand. (For more on intersex, see this older blog post.)

The new Facebook Gender categories are an improvement since many of them do reference a wider diversity of gender categories. Including cisgender with transgender helps make it clear how transgender is not a deviant or medical problem to set apart, as has happened in the past. (For more on cisgender, see this post.)

You may have noticed I mentioned a parallel path of how we’re treating gender categories with how we treated homosexuality. A short historical recap shows us that Homosexuality was in the DSM-I in 1952 as “sociopathic personality disorder.” In DSM-II in 1968, it was redefined as “sexual deviation.” In 1973, homosexuality was replaced entirely by “sexual orientation disturbance” which was then replaced with “ego dystonic homosexuality” in the DSM-III in 1980. That didn’t last long, as it was removed by a revision in the DSM-III-R in 1987. 

It is not a coincidence that ground-breaking social science research on sexuality was conducted during a time when many Civil Rights movements created awareness on accepting – and not excluding – diversity.

Those  DSM definitions evolved to focus less on the category itself as a problem and more on the mental health issues that could accompany it for some people. We are seeing this transformation now with transgender – definitions focus less on pathology and more on the psychological issues that can occur when people have difficulties with living as a transgendered person. This is a huge difference since it no longer makes the entire “category” deviant and such difficulties come when from socially, not biological, defined sources.

The treatment of homosexuality in subsequent (since 1988) policies of the American Psychiatric Association has been increasingly accepting and normalizing. There is no doubt that this has both reflected and supported the social changes in our society as we increasingly recognize that different sexual orientations are a natural variation of human life and experience.

Time will tell how quickly society will move to be more accepting of transgender categories as another dimension of the natural diversity of the human experience.


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The gender binary is common to the entire western world not just the united states.

Gender variance is still highly regulated and control through the medical profession and the media. Certainly non stereotypical gender presentation or expression is subject to sanction.

Interesting article,I didn’t know about all of this,thank you!

Maybe they should leave the options open and let people input the title that suits them best!

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