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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Column: Facebook's introduction of new gender identities is a perfect victory

It’s important to keep in mind who this victory really benefits.

Rivu Dasgupta

Feb. 18, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

I’ll be the first to admit this column can be rather critical, and that’s putting it a bit kindly. Indeed, operating under a social constructivist lens often involves the idea that things are “problematic” — an umbrella term for a characteristic that supports a system of oppression — and with said lens comes an inherent obligation to “problematize” (perform problematic analysis) in the name of minimizing harm or disrespect toward a social group.

Here’s the tacit truth of the matter: living with a lens tuned to dissect entire institutions isn’t always pleasant. In fact, it’s often the opposite; problematizing as a process is damn near impossible to “turn off,” and it can be an emotionally grueling affair that slams you with nausea while listening to the otherwise poetic genius of Eminem or forever ruining your ability to watch the vast majority of network television (“2 Broke Girls,” anyone?).

The application of such a lens extends well beyond pop culture, too. Even beautiful, inspiring moments of unity, like Mizzou’s own “Stand with Sam: One Wall, One Mizzou,” can be considered problematic if for no other reason than acknowledging the valid and incessant debate surrounding their execution (“this is a political rally” versus “this is a nonpolitical rally”).

That being said, it’s very important to appreciate emancipative victories for their progressive nature, however gradual and nuanced that process may be. Similarly, when one is given an evanescent glimpse of a perfect victory — an exceptional, radical step forward with no negative implications — it’s all the more critical to appreciate the moment with every last drop of dopamine accessible.

Ladies, gentlemen, trans folk and gender-nonconforming humans, a public corporation (of all systems) has given the public a so called “perfect victory.” Last week, Facebook introduced upwards of 50 new gender identity options and three pronoun options (he/him, she/her and they/them) that users can select on their Facebook profiles. That’s an initial audience of 156 million Facebook users receiving a potent dose of egalitarian progressivism, with a potential audience of 1.24 billion people. Would it be problematic to say “Zuck yeah”?

Facebook’s decision was, by every definition, radical. Nowadays, it’s a veritable victory when an MU e-survey opts for “transgender” instead of “transgendered,” or when a professor acknowledges there’s more than “men” and “women” in their inaugural iClicker poll. So when a public company decides to include identities like “androgyne” or “two-spirit,” it meets the lofty “exceptional” clause for perfection.

Similarly, Facebook’s actions meet the criteria for being completely unproblematic. While it’s logically impossible to prove a negative — the absence of an enforcement of oppression, in this case — it’s possible on a practical level. I’ll approach the matter by refuting any criticisms I’ve heard of Facebook’s decision.

Some pose the question “Why didn’t Facebook just include a single, ‘custom’ gender option? That way, people could just type in their self-defined identity instead of selecting from a finite set of options. This would avoid oppressing people who don’t fall under any of the identities available.”

Such a question is both intuitive, and fair; people can identify themselves in an essentially limitless capacity, and to prescribe a finite “about 50” to “limitless” doesn’t necessarily seem reasonable, especially given the ease of implementing a “custom” gender option.

Here’s the issue: a hypothetical custom gender option circumvents Trans* awareness, which is arguably the second most important implication of Facebook’s decision (the first being that people who identify as something other than male or female can finally enjoy proper public perception via social media). Indeed, few people are familiar with the notion that there are more than two or three gender identities, but with the new, extensive list of options, people will become aware of “Cis Male,” “Transmasculine,” and “Neutrois” as very real forms of self-perception.

Another comment I’ve heard involves the particular selection of identities available, namely, that a decent portion of them have similar meanings, both denotatively and practically. For example, one might argue that “Cis Female” and “Cisgender Female” are quite literally the exact same thing, and to present uniform identities next to each other implicates a social divide as opposed to a social union.

Arguing against the above notion, it’s important to appreciate that gender identity quite literally comes from how one perceives oneself. It’s a feeling and a conviction, above all else. If someone has an issue with “gender” as an innate conception, they might feel as though “Cisgender” isn’t an appropriate descriptor for them, while “Cis” is. Sure, quite a few of the new options are technically umbrella terms that blanket each other — “genderqueer” or “gender nonconforming,” for example. But I highly doubt people who identify in the aforementioned capacities consider their personhood in such a lexical and literal sense.

While it’s nice to revel in such a monumental step forward, it’s imperative to keep in mind whom the victory is for, first and foremost, the people who can now present themselves in their public profiles how they enthusiastically please. The next step? MU lifting the “-ed” from “transgendered” on their e-surveys.

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