By Reuven Pinnata | Staff Writer
As the world of social media has already noticed, Facebook (FB) has changed its gender-identification feature. FB users no longer have to choose between male or female when they define themselves in the digital world; FB has now given voice to those for whom the traditional male/female binary is inadequate.
For some folks, these setting changes are a welcome sign of progress, while others see it as just a politically-correct move. To get some opinions on the matter, the Central Circuit interviewed Dr. Krystle Balhan (KB), professor of psychology at SCCC, and Zane Rapinan (ZR), secretary of the Triangle Club, a LGBTQ student club.
Before going further, some terms must be defined. FB is giving user freedom in the realm of gender, which many consider distinct from sex. According to author and human sexuality expert Debby Herbenick, sex is “a configuration of chromosomes, hormones, gonads (ovaries, testicles), reproductive units (sperm, egg), and internal and external anatomy.” Gender, on the other hand, “is more about your personal sense of who you are (e.g. man, woman, transgender, etc.).” In short, sex refers more to biological qualities while gender refers more to personal identity.
(It should be noted that this distinction is controversial: some social conservatives consider gender to necessarily follow from sex, while some social radicals argue that sex is just as socially constructed as gender. It should also be noted that this feature is only available for users in the United States only.)
R: Responding to those who may be skeptical: how large is the scope of this change? How important is the representation of identity in social media?
KB: While it is hard to estimate the ‘scope of this change,’ I think it is important that we have accurate and inclusive representations of our identities in all forms of media, including social media. When the media do not represent any of our identities, this is called “symbolic annihilation” and can be detrimental because the media are socializing agents. We internalize messages about ourselves from the media, and when those messages simply aren’t present, we may internalize hostility towards ourselves, and low self-esteem and self-worth.
ZR: The representation of identity is one of the main points of social media. We can create online versions of ourselves and interact with other people’s. My opinion is that this seemingly small change can actually have wide-reaching and proactive effects. Having an entity as large as FB validate the existence of a myriad of diverse gender identities (before the institutions of education, law, and health care) can and hopefully will have trickle-down effects on the binary assumptions and roles that we all are held hostage to and restricted by.
R: How will this help break the stereotypes people put on gender identity?
KB: Part of breaking stereotypes involves knowledge and awareness. I think that this list of terms for gender expression can be informative to people who do not have knowledge about the vast and complex spectrum of gender identity. Additionally, part of empowerment includes the ability to name the fallacies of stereotypes and prejudices, and having such a public company and a public forum acknowledge the fallacy of the gender binary could help break some stereotypes.
ZR: The fact that a social media site as big as FB is validating more than the two binary gender identities has a huge effect on breaking binary stereotypes. Even for people who don’t understand or approve of the changes it is starting a much-needed conversation. The truth is that many people do not identify fully with either male or female options alone, and this is now supported in the internal structure of one of the most popular social media sites’ coding and layout. Before this change, people had to find creative ways to promote or disclose their non-binary or otherwise diverse gender identities online, by hiding it somewhere in the profile or hacking into the coding of FB to make the pronouns into a neutral “they/them” (which I personally did before the system changes). Also FB currently does not limit the amount of “custom” identities you can list (I have four options selected) nor the amount of times you can change your gender (still limited on number of name changes, unfortunately). This is important because many people have multiple intersecting identities even within gender, or have a fluid gender that may change from day to day or over time.
R: To what extent does a language help “make or break” gender stereotypes? People have often talked about the importance of using gender-neutral terms, but is it more than just a linguistic convention?
KB: Feminist thinkers have long argued the importance and power of language. The language we use with our parents, peers, teachers, and media shapes our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and the world. To illustrate, when elementary school girls use science books that only refer to scientists as male, using “he” or “him,” they are less likely to say that they will grow up to be scientists. However, when the science curriculum includes references to women scientists, girls are significantly more likely to state that they will be scientists when they grow up. Language shapes what we believe we can aspire to!
ZR: I believe that [this] holds great importance. The fact that Washington State changed all of its legal terms to be gender-neutral (e.g. police officer instead of policeman) was a big step in showing that those positions can be, and frequently are, held equally by any gender. Social media plays a huge role in modern society, and these effects can trickle into real-world conversation and assumptions. It is old fashioned to use terms like “mankind” or to use “he” as a sort of umbrella, all-inclusive pronoun. The linguistic conventions may be difficult to change, but that is one of the first steps in allowing true equality for all genders across our diverse modern societies.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 Women’s Forum issue.