Gender is a Field

Monday, November 29, 2010 § 6

I recently came across a blog post by Sarah Mei, one of the developers on Diaspora, that got me thinking about how we think-and talk-about gender.

Diaspora is open-source social network that’s currently being developed. It’s meant to eventually be a competitor with facebook, and it’s trying to do this by stressing its privacy and ownership of content, two things that facebook isn’t do so hot at.

What Sarah Mei wrote the post about was her decision to make the “gender” field on the social network blank, letting the user fill in any designation they wished. Instead of choosing between, “Male”, or “Female”, users could write, “dude”, or “gender-queer”, or “andro”, or “lady-like”. Here’s a cool graphic Sarah made showing some of the genders her contacts on the site chose to identify as.

I really applaud this decision by Sarah, and the developers at Diaspora. Though this hasn’t really broached the mainstream consciousness yet, many individuals do in fact have gender identities that fall outside of the generally accepted gender binary.

For those not as familiar with computers, binary refers to the binary numeral system, which is represented by two symbols, 0 and 1. In that system, there’s no 0.2, or .99, or 1.8 There’s two choices, male or female. Nothing in-between or falling outside.

And that’s how most people think about gender. Many people never question this outdated notion, and have never heard of the numerous identities that fall outside this binary (or, they hear them, and then choose to dismiss and belittle the people who have them).

These identities might be genderqueer, genderfuck, two-spirit, bigender (all subcategories of the umbrella term, transgender, though many transgender individuals do not challenge the binary, they simply switch sides) or anything else someone chooses to define themselves as.

Which is why a new way to describe gender is needed. Some people use spectrum, continuum, or simply call gender, fluid.

But I think “field” works pretty well too. Think about it for a second-a gender field. Geographically, fields are expansive, multidimensional (think hills), and have room for just about everyone, whether they’re in a big cluster, or sitting alone by a babbling brook.

But the term field also works with regards to computers and technology. Fields are inherently empty, ready to be filled by whatever someone wants to type in them. There are no two choices, the possibilities are simply endless.

Sarah Mei, I think you might be onto something.

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§ 6 Response to “Gender is a Field”

  • Daniel says:

    This is a very interesting post, Kyle. I think it was my Wash U app that asked for gender and had a box to type in instead of the typical "male" or "female" choices. At first glance, I thought this was ridiculous; you're either one or the other, and if not, you should choose. But I'm beginning to realize that identifying as a gender can be extremely constraining for some people. I think the idea of having a more open choice, a "field," as you call it, for gender identification is an interesting idea, but I worry about how far this goes. Our traditional gender dichotomy is deeply ingrained in our culture, and in our species as a whole. I wonder to what extent identifying as something other than the traditional "male" and "female" puts these people at a disadvantage, how much further it isolates them from the mainstream when they already have trouble fitting in, in a society that revolves around this distinction. What do you/any other readers think?

  • Kate says:

    Wow. Not much to add to Daniel's insightful comment. I definitely like the idea of a gender field. And I think that we shouldn't worry too much about people choosing to identify outside of the traditional "male" and "female" not being mainstream. The gender field's about changing the mainstream to something more inclusive. It's discriminatory that people aren't allowed to be whatever gender they choose, and the gender field could really change that. Kyle, great choice of topic. I always learn so much.

  • I think you brought up a great issue here Kyle! I like having the gender box open, like Daniel mentions. To those who see it as binary and simple, they may type in female or male. However, for those who do not wish to be constrained by two options, they have the freedom to label themselves as whatever they would like. I think that's where a lot of the power comes in. Often, others label us and force constraints upon us. Gender is something so frequently labeled that we hardly even realize it, so I think it's wonderful that you pointed it out. I also like the metaphor of gender as a field. I personally try to think about sexuality (the umbrella of your blog in some ways) in a similar fashion, as a spectrum. It is not necessary for any individual to fall at either of the poles (completely heterosexual, or completely homosexual). I am very comfortable looking at sexual orientation in this way, but it is new for me to consider gender as a field like this. Thank you for bringing the significance and implications of this issue to light!

  • Daniel: While at first glance, you may think that the gender binary is deeply ingrained in our species as a whole, if you look in history, you'll find many societies that actually do/did have some sort of "third gender" outside of the binary, try googling "two-spirit" and "Hijra", to name a couple. I think that identifying in a way outside of the binary definitely does put people at an advantage, but it's not really an option for these people-it's who they are. I think that really the best (and only) solution, is for people who fall outside of the gender binary to be who they really are. People aren't going to get used to something strange without exposure, and though this might be tough at first, in the end I think it'll eventually succeed.

    Thanks for the comments guys =]

  • Kyle, this is a very thought provoking post. I think more people need to be aware issues like describing gender. I agree that gender as a field is a more accepting way of labeling gender. While multidimensional is an interesting method for approaching the description of gender, I see some flaws with the hill idea. A hill implies that some words will be "higher up" and then maybe seen as more important. A field is a good starting point for reshaping our ideas about gender, but hills push the envelope. Another great post, Kyle!

  • Lauren:
    I get your point, all metaphors tend to collapse at a point. But at the same time, currently, some people's genders are seen as "higher up" or "better". This can be seen in sexism, and increased persecution of gender variant individuals. That said, obviously having some people's genders seen as higher than others is not ideal, so maybe the ideal gender field will be flat after all =].

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