17.2.14

Self-made Selves?



How many people reside in us? Facebook's decision to provide an option of 50 genders is not really about choice. It is divisive and confusing, and in many ways reductionist.

Gender is not about sexual orientation alone. It is a birth fact. We are either male or female and in some cases hermaphrodite, those born with sexual organs of both. How we feel or behave later is another matter, and the choice takes off from the prevalent genders.

The option for 'other' does cover a wide range already. Why then the need to split hairs? A surgeon, irrespective of area of expertise, will tick-mark surgeon, or more often would fall into the broad category of doctor or medical professional. The same would apply to writers, even if they are identified with a particular genre.

It is possible to argue that these are not personal and there is less of an emotive compulsion to be possessive about them. What does ‘AndrogynousBigender’ tell others about who we really are, when one needs a reference manual for that term? It has been described as "a person who feels that their gender is fully male and fully female, or any pair of genders, generally by switching between the two". Will the person be able to convey when the switch is taking place, for would that not be the ethical stand? If this is an imperative identity, one cannot quite treat it on par with mood swings. There is a major shift between two fully operational and active sexes that choose to be one at any given point in time without any noticeable change in demeanour. How is anybody to perceive such a fluid identity, which by its very nature is tethered?

If we think “gender fluid” is an identity, then would we apply the same standards to wavering between faiths, to take just one example? How would we annotate an individual alternating between different belief systems and non-belief? This is in the area of ideology, therefore less crucial as a benchmark unless it is a publicly-recognised position. The closer analogy would be a physical transformation in spurts. Imagine a visually-impaired person being not blind and then back again. Gender is the ‘face’ of a person, and the persona too.

For all its “cool” quotient, the privacy option is retained. Therefore, the new identities might merely be self-recognition. It raises the question: Is this what one is worth – a pull-down menu? If, as Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison said, “There's going to be a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing, but for the few it does impact, it means the world”, why does the report state: “Unlike getting engaged or married, changing gender is not registered as a 'life event' on the site and won't post on timelines”?

For those who think this is an important part of who they are, is it not life-changing? Is FB resorting to a cosmetic gimmick? The pronouns offered are ‘him’, ‘her’ and ‘them’. In popular usage, except when addressing a designated group, ‘them’ denotes otherness. Therefore, alienation is embedded within. How does it work “in supporting individuals' multifaceted identities”? Perhaps, this too is ad-driven. The ‘neutral’ category will have advertisements that are not male or female oriented. It means a larger pool, as well as several niche markets.

This is certainly not about civil rights. Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said:

“Over the past few years, a person's Facebook profile truly has become their online identity, and now Facebook has taken a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves. We applaud Facebook for making it possible for people to be their authentic selves online."

Besides reducing an online persona to a person’s identity, it also ignores that social media often masks the true self. It has been a refuge for counterfeit personae, irrespective of gender, nationality or other defining details. To create 50 categories to choose from is itself an inauthentic understanding of gender.

Instead of granting those who do not wish to conform, this is an attempt to create several conforming stereotypes that others can selectively target for different purposes.

© Farzana Versey

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