Last week (God, was that really last week? How time flies), I wrote an article about Facebook reinforcing gender binarism. It got an unusually large number of hits for a CP article, as it was linked, to my pleasant surprise, at Bilerico, Feministing, and Queerty. But all that traffic meant that I got a lot of critical comments on the article, and this was really my first experience dealing with the humbling, no-holds-barred experience of anonymous people on the Internet telling you frankly what they think about something you’ve worked hard at. At my editor’s urging, yesterday I wrote a response to the 20 comments on the article itself, and it took me nearly two hours to write these four or so paragraphs. I don’t usually have that much difficulty writing something like this, but since I spent so much time on it yesterday I thought I might as well repost that comment here:
Thanks very much for offering your thoughts! As the author of this article, I wanted to respond in a general fashion to some of the issues you raised in your comments.
Firstly, it seems as if there’s a prevailing sentiment that Facebook and its attitudes toward gender identity are not as important as some issues that Campus Progress could be covering. While I can certainly see that Facebook seems trivial, I decided to write about it because this issue is a good example of how gender is represented in our culture—that is, binarily, in a way that conflates it with the differing concept of biological sex. Facebook is also overwhelmingly populated by users under the age of 30—the group that is meant to be more progressive than ever before on social issues such as same-sex marriage, and yet is perhaps less aware of the more theoretical and perhaps less political aspects of gender identity and our culture’s often-gender-essentialist nature. My belief is that, while this issue may not have as convenient a political application as something like same-sex marriage, it is no less essential to understand. Moreover, this article hasn’t caused Campus Progress to lessen its coverage of issues such as health care and the environment—we continue to address a wide variety of issues important to young progressives.
To those who believe I misleadingly conflated sex and gender: if my writing was anything less than clear, I apologize. I am well aware of the distinction between those two concepts and it wasn’t my intention to confuse them. However, the problem, as commenter JD helpfully pointed out, is that Facebook is conflating sex and gender, which can lead to some very confusing language and difficulty in rendering Facebook’s own definitions in terms of modern gender theory rhetoric. I do certainly grant that I could have tried harder to lessen the confusion, though.
And to those who believe that this issue is a non-issue because Facebook users are not obligated to list a sex, or who believe that it could be easily solved by adding an “intersex” or “both” or “neither” option: it’s not as simple as that. Just as sexual orientation is often conceived of in broader terms than “straight/gay/bisexual,” gender identity has as many gradations as there are people. While this article was more intended to raise awareness of how websites like Facebook implement a binary understanding of gender than to hand Facebook a policy proposal, I believe it would be best to have either a fill-in field or no field at all. The most progressive way to treat people is to allow them to define themselves, rather than attempting to choose their labels for them.
I understand that the way I addressed identity and its social constructions in this article may seem reductive to people more familiar with august writers who advance more complex academic theories of gender. I was writing with the knowledge that Campus Progress is not a publication dedicated to queer issues, and so its readers may very well be new to thinking about gender in an abstract way—as, perhaps, some of these comments indicate. I had hoped that the words and experiences of the people I interviewed for this article might have helped deal with this problem of writing to a variety of levels of familiarity—but if they didn’t, I’m happy to self-promote the personal essay I wrote last February which gave me the idea for this article, and which deals with more theoretical issues. (It’s posted on my personal website here.)
If you’re interested in discussing this any further, feel free to contact me.
Editorial Intern and Staff Writer