“I’m a boy who feels like a girl who likes boys who like girls. so if you know a boy who likes girls with bodies like boys, give that boy my phone number plz.”
It took me a minute to make sense of how my friend felt, but what dawned on me was how truly common such conversations have become in my everyday life. Talking about gender and identity has become nearly mainstream practice, a stepping-stone in the course of getting to know someone. I could give numerous anecdotes (the co-worker who is pansexual/homo-romantic or the flatmate who is bisexual but has had the same asexual partner for many years), but my guess is that many of us have had such experiences and do not need any lengthy explanation. Sex, gender, and sexuality no longer align in a straightforward fashion with roles becoming prescribed essentially at birth. From more choices when filling in demographic bubbles, to an increasing number of employers offering extended paternity leave to new fathers[i], to increasing support for children who select non-gender conforming toys [ii][iii] and clothes, the space for discussing and expressing one’s gender has opened up immensely.
The dismantling of a gender binary is hardly novel, but its prominence in news and social media seems to have increased recently. In particular, the emergence of feminism as a popular mode of discourse has brought the gender binary to its knees. The second wave of feminism highlighted the difference between biological sex and gender identity. Whilst sex was determined by anatomical characteristics of males and females, gender was culturally constructed and varied over time[iv]. Such axioms as Simone de Beauvoir’s, ‘One is not born but becomes a woman’[v] and Judith Butler’s notions on embodied and performative aspects of gender[vi] lay the groundwork for the binary to slowly start ebbing away.
Gender was thought to be an elusive idea that was ‘both produced and shaped by institutions such as the media, religion and educational, medical, and other political and social systems…’ creating an assumed and firmly established societal structure[vii]. In third wave feminism, however, power relations and structures are no longer a fixed reality, rather reality is performed within certain contingencies[viii]. Boundaries are no longer concrete, but are subject to dispute. In fact, media has begun to be shaped by society’s changing attitudes toward gender.
Last year, Facebook and other social media sites, such as OkCupuid, have a set a unique precedent by allowing their users to identify as cisgender, agender, gender fluid, androgynous, or a multitude of other options numbering over 50[ix]. I remember many of my friends exclaimed with joy on these same sites, proclaiming that they finally did not feel pegged into a label they found uncomfortable. Earlier this month, Facebook Ireland joined the US and UK in adding these numerous options, including a free-form field in which users can write in up to ten terms to describe themselves[x]. Furthermore, they can choose the audiences with which to share custom gender options.
But is this just a proliferation of labels? Even in our era of self-definition and reflexivity, is it necessary to have transgender woman, transsexual woman, and trans woman each as a separate category?[xi] Is having an umbrella sociopolitical category limiting or empowering? Facebook might still be one of the few paces in which trans* people feel they truly exist, as bathrooms, medical forms, language, (i.e., personal pronouns) and government identification rarely encompass anything beyond the binary, effectively excluding and denying them[xii]. I cannot say with certainty how groups may coalesce or dissolve, but if we take seriously the mobilizing power of social media sites to develop new codes of operation, official acceptance of gender self-expression and non-conformity will come with time.
Although Facebook Ireland states that the changes were not done specifically in support of gay marriage in the Ireland referendum, it will allow people more freedom to define their own true gender identity and connect with others[xiii]. It is this freedom to describe and to express what is longed for most. Judith Butler writes,
‘…to define culture as necessarily preoccupied with the reproduction of binary oppositions is to support a structuralist assumption which seems neither valid nor politically beneficial. After all, if binary restrictions are to be overcome in experience, they must meet their dissolution in the creation of new cultural forms’[xiv].
The usefulness of a binary becomes unclear when we consider the multiple experiences that exist which do not abide by clear-cut oppositions, and when these confounding subversions are, in fact, in abundance[xv]. The supposed natural ‘truth’ that men and women hold certain characteristics, or are inclined toward certain roles, disguises the fact that such diametric poles are culturally constructed and can therefore also be deconstructed. Attitudes toward gender may have evolved, but there is still significant pressure to conform to a binary model of sex, to normalize one’s genitals to be all female or male[xvi]. Unfortunately, trans individuals, especially people of colour, still face discriminatory violence all too often[xvii]. Despite these limitations, I feel it is still important we understand that the disillusion of the binary is not only physically harmful, but stands in the way of a more progressive society at large. This extends beyond LGBT issues and into the realm of our civil rights as human beings. As far as I know, Facebook has yet still to add the option of ‘human’.
[i] Mundy, Liza. “Daddy track: The case for paternity leave.” The Atlantic. (Jan/Feb 2014) Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/the-daddy-track/355746/
[ii] O’Connor, Lydia. “How a 7-year-old girl persuaded a publisher to drop ‘For Boys’ from a book’s cover.” The Huffington Post (9 December 2014) Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/09/girl-boys-book-letter-bugs_n_6291620.html
[iii] O’Connor, Clare. “Bye bye Barbie: GoldieBlox releases first action figure for girls.” Forbes Magazine (6 November 2014) Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2014/11/06/bye-bye-barbie-goldieblox-releases-first-action-figure-for-girls/
[iv] Rampton, Martha. “The three waves of feminism.” Pacific University Oregon. (23 October 2014). Available at http://www.pacificu.edu/about-us/news-events/three-waves-feminism
[v] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Press, 1973), 301.
[vi] Butler, Judith. “Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory.” Theatre Journal vol 4 no 4, 1998. pp. 519-531
[vii] Johnson, Joy; Repta, Robin. “Sex and gender: Beyond the binaries.” in J. Oliffe and L. Greaves (eds) Designing and Conducting gender, sex and health research. (Thousand Oaks California: SAGE Publications, pp. 17-39) p. 21.
[viii] Rampton, Martha. (2014)
[ix] Oremus, Will. “Facebook no longer limits your gender to ‘male’ or ‘female’”. Slate. (13 February 2014) Available at: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/02/13/facebook_gender_options_male_female_and_custom_plus_preferred_pronouns.html
[x] Newenham, Pamela. “Facebook adds 70 gender options for Irish users”. The Irish Times (1 May 2015). Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/technology/facebook-adds-70-gender-options-for-irish-users-1.2195919
[xi] Beyer, Dana. “Facebook’s gender identities.” The Huffington Post. (19 February 2014) Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dana-beyer/facebooks-gender-identities_b_4811147.html
[xii] Lubin, Lauren. “As a trans person, Facebook is one of the only places I exist.” The Huffington Post. (20 February 2014). Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-lubin/as-a-trans-person-faceboo_b_4819656.html
[xiii] Newenham, P. (2015)
[xiv] Butler, Judith. “Variations of sex and gender: Beauvoir, Witting, and Foucault.” Praxis International (5 January 1986). No. 4, pp. 505-516.
[xv] Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality, Volume 1. (New York: Vintage Random House, 1990 ).
[xvi] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex redefined: The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.” Nature (18 February 2015) Available at: http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943
[xvii] Halloran, Liz. “With two deaths already reported in 2015, HRC spotlights violence against transgender people”. Human Rights Campaign (30 January 2015). Available at: http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/with-two-deaths-already-reported-in-2015-hrc-spotlights-violence-against