It’s Complicated

02.15.14

What Each of Facebook’s 51 New Gender Options Means

For ten years, the social network limited billions of people identifying as either male or female. Now there are dozens of terms to pick from. Here’s how to understand them all.

Imagine you’re a man. You think everything about you looks like a man should look. You have short hair and a little scruff on your face. When you were born, the doctors said, “It’s a boy!” and that’s how your parents raised you. You’ve always shopped for guys’ clothes and no one has ever called you anything other than a boy, guy, dude, or man. Then one day at a restaurant, the waiter asks you, “Can I get you anything to drink, ma’am?”

If feeling like a man, but being called “ma’am”, would be uncomfortable, jarring, or at least surprising, perhaps you can imagine what it might feel like to be perceived as a gender other than your own.

Most of us never question or think much about our gender, but it’s an essential part of our identity. And given the endlessly diverse ways people experience their gender, their bodies, and their masculinity or femininity, it’s a wonder there are so few words to describe it. Except there are actually (at least) dozens of gender terms, and Facebook is now offering its users numerous options to present their gender identity to their Facebook friends in the same way they do in the real world (or a different way – because, hey, and it’s your gender identity and you can do what you want).

While Facebook has always used sex terms (male and female) to describe users’ genders, their recognition of the diversity of gender identities and presentations is a welcome one.  If that whole “sex” versus “gender” thing is confusing, here’s a little background:

Sex refers mainly to biology and is a configuration of chromosomes, hormones, gonads (ovaries, testicles), reproductive units (sperm, egg), and internal and external anatomy. And while sex is often talked about as if the only two options are male and female, this two-sex system is inadequate for understanding the sex characteristics of all people.

Gender is more about your personal sense of who you are (e.g., man, woman, transgender, etc). Gender primarily refers to qualities that are masculine or feminine or neither or both. Just as sex is often talked about as male/female, gender is often thought about as being a man or woman. However, this binary gender system is inadequate for understanding the gender of all humans, especially across cultures. Many societies are now expanding their use of gender terms.

Gender terms are dynamic and some terms are more often used or preferred in some communities, or parts of the country. Some terms are also generational, being more common among younger or older people. Facebook’s list of gender terms cannot cover every possible identity a person can have. Similarly, our glossary to these terms – while put together with much thought and care - most certainly cannot capture all of the nuances of gender, or how people feel about their own identities.

Gender identity can be a sensitive issue and it’s best to let other people tell you about their gender (if they want to) rather than make assumptions. Facebook’s new gender options give people a chance to do just that and, we feel, are a good step toward expanding conversations about gender. Remember as you read through these gender terms that they are terms of gender – not sex, and not sexual orientation. Those are totally different topics.

Gender identity can be a sensitive issue and it’s best to let other people tell you about their gender.

For more terms and understandings of sex and gender, Eli Green and Eric Peterson’s glossary of Sex/Gender terms is a great source for more information.

Agender - Someone who does not identify with any sort of gender identity. This term may also be used by someone who intentionally has no recognizable gender presentation. Some people use similar terms such as “genderless” and “gender neutral”.

Androgyne/Androgynous - someone who neither identifies with, nor presents as, a man or woman. Being “androgynous” can refer to having both masculine and feminine qualities. This term has Latin roots: Andro- meaning “man” and -gyne, meaning “woman.” Some androgynes may identity as “gender benders”, meaning that they are intentionally “bending” (or challenging/transgressing) societal gender roles.

Bigender- someone who identifies as both a man and a woman. A Bigender identity is a combination of these two genders, but not necessarily a 50/50 combination, as these genders are often felt – and expressed - fully. Similar to individuals who identify as gender fluid, bigender people may present as men, as women, or as gender-neutral ways on different days.

Cis- all of these terms capture that a person is not trans or does not have a gender diverse identity or presentation.

Cis Female (see also Cis Woman, Cisgender Female, Cisgender Woman); a female who identifies as a woman/has a feminine gender identity.

Cis Male (see also Cis Man, Cisgender Male, Cisgender Man); a male who identifies as a man/has a masculine gender identity.

Cis Man (see Cis Male)

Cis Woman (see Cis Female)

Cisgender: A person who has the gender identity commonly associated with their biological sex (e.g., someone who is assigned as a female at birth and who lives as a woman). 

Cisgender Female (see Cis Female)

Cisgender Male (see Cis Male)

Cisgender Man (see Cis Male)

Cisgender Woman (see Cis Female)

Female to Male/ FTM- a trans person who was assigned female sex, and now lives as a man and has a masculine gender identity. This person may or may not have altered his physical body with surgery, hormones, or other modifications (e.g., voice training to develop a deeper spoken voice). FTM is an abbreviation of female to male. Generally uses masculine pronouns (e.g., “he” or “his”) or gender neutral pronouns.

Gender Fluid- someone whose gender identity and presentation are not confined to only one gender category. Gender fluid people may have dynamic or fluctuating understandings of their gender, moving between categories as feels right. For example, a gender fluid person might feel more like a man one day and more like a woman on another day, or that neither term is a good fit.

Gender Nonconforming- Someone who looks and/or behaves in ways that don’t conform to, or are atypical of, society’s expectations of how a person of that gender should look or behave. (See also this excellent article by Dr. Eric Grollman about gender conformity & gender non-conformity).

Gender Questioning- Someone who may be questioning their gender or gender identity, and/or considering other ways of experiencing or expressing their gender or gender presentation.

Gender Variant- an umbrella term that refers to anyone who, for any reason, does not have a cisgender identity (which includes the trans* umbrella). Others acknowledge issues with this term as it implies that such genders are “deviations” from a standard gender, and reinforces the “naturalness” of the two-gender system. Some prefer the terms “gender diverse” or “gender-nonconforming.

Genderqueer- Someone who identifies outside of, or wishes to challenge, the two-gender (i.e., man/woman) system; may identify as multiple genders, a combination of genders, or “between” genders. People who use this term may feel that they are reclaiming the word “queer”, which has historically been used as a slur against gay men and women. This term is used more often by younger generations doing the “reclaiming” and less often by slightly older generations who may have personally experienced the term “queer” as a slur.

Intersex- Generally refers to someone whose chromosomes, gonads (i.e., ovaries or testes), hormonal profiles, and anatomy do not conform to the expected configurations of either male typical  or female typical bodies. Some intersex conditions are apparent at birth, while others are noticed around puberty or later (if ever). Some individuals no longer use the term “intersex conditions” and instead prefer “disorders of sex development.” (See ISNA.org.)

Male to Female/MTF- a trans person who was assigned male sex (likely at birth), and now lives as a woman and has a feminine gender identity. This person may or may not have altered her physical body with surgery, hormones, or other modification (e.g., voice training, electrolysis, etc). MTF is an abbreviation of “Male To Female”. Generally uses female pronouns (e.g., “she” or “her”) or gender neutral pronouns.

Neither- Not putting a label on one’s gender.

Neutrois- An umbrella term within the bigger umbrella terms of transgender or genderqueer. Includes people who do not identify within the binary gender system (i.e., man/woman). According to Neutrois.com, some common Neutrois identities include agender neither-gender, and gender-less.

Non-binary- Similar to genderqueer, this is a way of describing one’s gender as outside the two-gender (i.e., man/woman) system and/or challenging that system.

Other- Choosing to not provide a commonly recognized label to one’s gender. When used by someone to describe themselves, this may feel like a freeing way of describing (or not specifically describing) their gender. The term “other” should not be used to refer to people whose gender you can’t quite understand or place.

Pangender- “Pan” means every, or all, and this is another identity label such like genderqueer or neutrois that challenges binary gender and is inclusive of gender diverse people.

Transgender- an umbrella term that includes all people who have genders not traditionally associated with their assigned sex.  People who identify as transgender may or may not have altered their bodies through surgery and/or hormones. Some examples:

Trans Man (see FTM above); Although some people write the term as “transman” (no space between trans and man) or trans-man (note the hyphen), some advocate for a space to be included between “trans” and “man” in order to indicate that the person is a man and that the “trans” part may not be a defining characteristic or central to his identity.

Trans Woman (see MTF above) Although some people write the term as “transwoman” (no space between trans and woman) or trans-woman (note the hyphen), some advocate for a space to be included between “trans” and “woman” in order to indicate that the person is a woman and that the “trans” part may not be a defining characteristic or central to her identity.

Trans Female (see MTF above)

Trans Male (see FTM above)

Trans Person (see transgender above); another way of saying someone is a transgender person. (Note that “transgender” tends to be preferred over “transgendered”).

Trans* is an inclusive term, referring to the many ways one can transcend or even transgress gender or gender norms (e.g., it includes individuals who may identify as transgender, transsexual, gender diverse, etc). In many cases the asterisk (*) is not followed by a sex or gender term – it’s just written as Trans* - to indicate that not all trans people identify with an established sex or gender label. Another option is to write it as:

Trans*Person (see transgender above)

Other times, a sex or gender label may be used:

Trans*Female (see MTF)

Trans*Male (see FTM)

Trans*Man (see FTM)

Trans*Woman (see MTF)

Transsexual person - For many people this term indicates that a person has made lasting changes to their physical body, specifically their sexual anatomy (e.g., genitals and/or breasts or chest), through surgery. For some, the term “transsexual” is a problematic term because of its history of pathology or association with a psychological disorder. In order to get the operations necessary for sexual reassignment surgeries or gender confirming surgeries, people long needed a psychiatric diagnosis (historically, that diagnosis was “transsexualism”) and recommendations from mental health professionals. The term “transsexual” tends to be used less often by younger generations of trans persons.

Transsexual Woman – Someone who was assigned male sex at birth who has most likely transitioned (such as through surgery and/or hormones) to living as a woman.

Transsexual Man- Someone who was assigned female at birth who has most likely transitioned (such as through surgery and/or hormones) to living as a man.

Transsexual Female (see Transsexual Woman)

Transsexual Male (see Transsexual Man)

Transgender is an umbrella term which includes all people who have genders not traditionally associated with their sex at birth.  Transgender person can also be used. This may (but does not necessarily) include:

Transgender Female (see MTF)

Transgender Male (see FTM)

Transgender Man (see FTM)

Transgender Woman (see MTF)

Transmasculine- Someone assigned a female sex at birth and who identifies as masculine, but may not identify wholly as a man. Often, you’ll encounter the phrase “masculine of center” to indicate where people who identify as transmasculine see themselves in relation to other genders.

Transfeminine- Someone assigned a male sex at birth who identifies as feminine, but may not identify wholly as a woman. Often, you’ll encounter the phrase “feminine of center” to indicate where people who identify as transfeminine see themselves in relation to other genders.

Two-spirit- This term likely originated with the Zuni tribe of North America, though two-spirit persons have been documented in numerous tribes. Native Americans, who have both masculine and feminine characteristics and presentations, have distinct roles in their tribes, and they are seen as a third gender. (Recently, Germany  and Nepal adopted a third gender option for citizens to select).