Facebook Sex Selection: It’s Complicated

"It's complicated" has long been an option to describe one's romantic status on Facebook. Now, it applies to one's sex as well.

Facebook New Gender Options

“It’s complicated” has long been an option to describe one’s romantic status on Facebook. Now, it applies to one’s sex as well.


You don’t have to be just male or female on Facebook anymore. The social media giant has added a customizable option with about 50 different terms people can use to identify their gender as well as three preferred pronoun choices: him, her or them.

Facebook said the changes, shared with The Associated Press before the launch on Thursday, initially cover the company’s 159 million monthly users in the U.S. and are aimed at giving people more choices in how they describe themselves, such as androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid or transsexual.

“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,” said Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who worked on the project and is herself undergoing gender transformation, from male to female. On Thursday, while watchdogging the software for any problems, she said she was also changing her Facebook identity from Female to TransWoman.

“All too often transgender people like myself and other gender nonconforming people are given this binary option, do you want to be male or female? What is your gender? And it’s kind of disheartening because none of those let us tell others who we really are,” she said. “This really changes that, and for the first time I get to go to the site and specify to all the people I know what my gender is.”

Facebook, which has 1.23 billion active monthly users around the world, also allows them to keep their gender identity private and will continue to do so.

The Williams Institute, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates there are at least 700,000 individuals in the U.S. who identify as transgender, an umbrella term that includes people who live as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

That “male” and “female” are inadequate to describe every person’s gender has long been understood, if only recently accepted widely. That we need 50 choices, however, is news to me. Here they are:

Cis Female
Cis Male
Cis Man
Cis Woman
Cisgender Female
Cisgender Male
Cisgender Man
Cisgender Woman
Female to Male
Gender Fluid
Gender Nonconforming
Gender Questioning
Gender Variant
Male to Female
Trans Female
Trans Male
Trans Man
Trans Person
Transexual Female
Transexual Male
Transexual Man
Transexual Person
Transexual Woman
Transgender Female
Transgender Person

I must admit, I haven’t the slightest clue what some of these terms mean, much less the distinction between, say, Trans FemaleTrans*FemaleTrans*WomanTransexual Female, and Transgender Female. For that matter, if I’m understanding the terms correctly, I’m not only male I’m also CisCis MaleCis ManCisgender, and Cisgender Male; I have no idea what advantage is created by having so many choices to describe the exact same thing.

My point isn’t to make light of this. On balance, I think this is the right move. The fact that simply choosing male was a no-brainer for me under the old category system—indeed, it never occurred to me to wonder why additional choices weren’t provided—is an indicator of privilege. Facebook may have overcompensated here. But at least they’ve inspired a useful conversation.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Science & Technology, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    When I read this my first response was “You have got to be kidding me….” but then I realized that was just me yelling, “HEY YOU! GET OFF MY GRASS!” (and I don’t even facebook so it’s not my grass)

    if I’m understanding the terms correctly, I’m not only male I’m also Cis, Cis Male, Cis Man, Cisgender, and Cisgender Male;

    My hat’s off to your ability to navigate (or at least translate) an increasingly complicated world. My only response was, “At my age, it’s hard enough hanging on to the knowledge I already possess.” Besides, I really don’t care. What people call themselves is going to have zero effect on my marriage.

  2. Jeff Sexton says:

    It is certainly an interesting idea whose time has probably long come. Though I can already hear the Talibaptists’ heads exploding…

  3. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Ha. Indeed, the vast majority of us are privileged to be cissexual, meaning that we think we’re the sex that our body looks like and be attracted to people of the opposite sex. It’s useful to understand both that society treats us much better as a result and that we didn’t earn that. Beyond that, though, I’m not sure what to do with the information.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    Whoever put that list together sounds like he had just been harangued for 50 hours by a Radical QueerPolyamory LGBT Marxist collective in Berkeley. Too complex and far too many entries.

    Can I put down “noneofyourbizness” instead?

  5. Electroman says:

    @James Joyner: “Cis”, usually a prefix, is the opposite of “trans”. Being “cissexual” doesn’t have anything to do with who you are attracted to – that’s sexual orientation. The vast majority of gay men, for example, are “cis”.

  6. mattbernius says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Can I put down “noneofyourbizness” instead?

    Actually, that probably should be an option.

    As for there being too many options, I disagree. One’s Facebook page is critical to one’s virtual identity — especially for people of a certain age. And as gender has come to be understood as increasingly a public performance (which isn’t to say an “act”), having the ability to define one’s self with this level of granularity will be important for an not insignificant subset of Facebook’s target audience.

    This also makes sense given that Facebook is still very much a college/early-20’s platform, and this is a time when sexuality is probably it’s most fluid and political.

    Plus this is going to lead to a lot of interesting social science data — i.e. what percentages uses the extremely granular definitions versus the more popular gender roles and how often do individuals change their categorization.

    And, beyond all that, I have to suspect that this level of granularity will also tie into the ads one gets fed.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s useful to understand both that society treats us much better as a result and that we didn’t earn that.


  8. OzarkHillbilly says:
  9. Ben says:

    I must admit, I haven’t the slightest clue what some of these terms mean, much less the distinction between, say, Trans Female, Trans*Female, Trans*Woman, Transexual Female, and Transgender Female.

    I’m not an expert on this as I am not personally affected by gender issues, but I have a few casual acquaintances that have schooled me a bit on the terminology, if you care to know.

    The people who make a distinction between transgender and transsexual typically use it such that transsexual means that you are actually in (or thinking seriously about) the process of surgically changing your biology/physiology (genitalia, breasts, adam’s apple, face, etc) from one sex to another. Transgender is more based on social and culture roles, dress, and what gender you “present” as.

    The people who think the distinction is valid but feel that both terms apply to them use “Trans*”

    The people who think that distinction is meaningless use “Trans” without the asterisk

    The distinction between Man/Woman and Male/Female is pretty much the same as the transexual/transgender distinction I mentioned before. Male/female mostly concerned with biology and physiology, and man/woman mostly concerned with culture and social appearance.

    I also could be completely wrong about something, and it would not surprise me.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Electroman: Ah. I understood “cisgender” to refer to sexual identity and “cissexual” to refer to orientation. It seems they’re actually virtually synonymous. Morever, we need a word for someone who is straight and cis.

    @mattbernius: Yeah, my only issue is that giving so many overlapping and not-widely-understood options means that what you’re communicating is unclear.

    @Ben: I gather the trans community is still sorting this out, so it’s not at all shocking that we haven’t come to terms with the language.

  11. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    @mattbernius: Yeah, my only issue is that giving so many overlapping and not-widely-understood options means that what you’re communicating is unclear.

    All depends on who you are communicating to and what you are attempting to communicate.

    Anyone who chooses a hyper specific gender term is most likely doing it to (a) make a broad political statement (in which case you’re not knowing is a critical part of the point, as they are intentionally, not to mention provocatively, marking themselves as being proud to be “other”), and/or (b) aiming that choice at a very specific segment of their own friends/associates (as a sign of solidarity).

  12. Ben says:

    @James Joyner:

    Oh, absolutely. The people I’ve interacted with that are trans have basically broken down into two groups: co-workers who started transitioning after I had already met them, and people I interact with only online.

    The only thing that is consistent between all of them is that they all disagree with each other on the terminology 🙂

  13. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner & @Ben:

    I gather the trans community is still sorting this out, so it’s not at all shocking that we haven’t come to terms with the language.

    Actually, I tend to think that Facebook’s new categorization system (if it’s adopted by users) is going to accelerate that sorting out process as people are going to make a very public choice as to a given term and lose the flexibility (unless they constantly update their profile) of using one term one day and another the next.

  14. Not a facebook fan, but love this idea as it more accurately expresses the wide spectra occupying the intersecting planes of human existence. Which means some categories were likely missed.

  15. Tyrell says:

    “pangender”, “two spirit”: really? Let’s add “Martian” “Venusian” “Klingon”
    Most of the stuff on this list sounds more like somone’s fantasies and fetishes.
    There are male and female. No amount of pretending, dreaming, imagining, visualizing, or talk show psychologists is going to change that.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tyrell: Tyrell? Meet Reality. Reality? Will you please b!tch slap this fool into the 21st century?

  17. James says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I think you should just call him Bob because identity means so little to him

  18. Neil Hudelson says:


    “Look, you are either black, or you are white. All this “mixed race” talk really is just about black people.”

    “Men having sex with other men? Might as well talk about men having sex with aliens. It’s just as ridiculous.”

    Understand how silly you sound? If you don’t understand something, that doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes you ignorant. Making fun of someone for your ignorance means you no longer look ignorant, you look flat out stupid.

  19. Mu says:

    That list is so exclusive to hermaphrodites.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    @mattbernius: Well, that’s the thing. If you have to attach a paragraph of explanation to a word before anyone understands what you are talking about, are we really talking about useful categories?

    Aside from the overlapping of categories, there’s also the fact I bet $100 that you get 1000 people together and you’ll get 1000 different definitions for some of those terms. And some of them sound so loosey-goosey it’s hard to tell whether we’re talking about gender or political stances.

    Oh, and Tyrell? There ARE people who don’t fall into an XY or XX category. Some have X. Some have XYY. Some have XXY. And some have different chromosomes, depending on which cell you pick in the body. So don’t be so dogmatic about that “there’s only male or female.” We DO have others around…..

  21. James Pearce says:


    No amount of pretending, dreaming, imagining, visualizing, or talk show psychologists is going to change that.

    It’s more complicated than that…..

    I think when it comes to terms, you should call someone what they prefer to be called. That said….

    I hate hate hate the term “cis-gendered.” “Cis” may be the linguistic opposite of “Trans,” but cis-people are not the “opposite” of trans-people. Trans-people have gender identity issues; cis-people do not. No one wants to feel weird or abnormal, which is understandable, but playing semantic games is only going to confuse or annoy people.

  22. Franklin says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Not even the 21st century … some indigenous groups have known for thousands of years that there is something besides “strictly” (cis?) male and female.

    To be honest, though, I’m not a fan of this many choices. When I saw the post title, I actually thought that was a good idea (male/female/it’s complicated). Real life is indeed complicated, and I’d bet anything that the 50 current choices aren’t enough to cover every possibility.

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James: Heh.

  24. ernieyball says:

    @James: then there is Pat…


    For xtra credit…Who is Pat’s parent?

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:


    I’m not a fan of this many choices.

    That is my gut reaction too, but then, they don’t exist for me. They may not help me understand someone else’s sexuality, (I don’t need to, I’m married) but if they help some one understand or define their own sexuality?

    Than it’s a good thing. I guess. (scratches head)

  26. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Mu: Intersex is a commonly used inclusive term that describes people born without a single set of differntiable male or female genitalia. It covers hermaphrodites.

    @Tyrell: Really? Even assuming that transgenderism is entirely psychological, what do you do with people who are born without either a functioning set of male or female genitalia? Historically, doctors in the U.S. have pressured parents to pick a gender, get surgery done, and then raise their child as the gender they picked randomly.

    Which works out great. Except when it doesn’t. And since its a coin toss, one can imagine how often the parents picked heads when they should have picked tails.

  27. anjin-san says:

    More of the gay oppression crushing Real Americans with the weight of a thousand mountains.

  28. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It would seem to me that in that case it behooves one to discuss one’s self-development in definition only to one’s journal.

    Picking something from this slew of ill-defined possibilities (and then changing it the next week as one’s self-awareness improves) only gives off an air of total confusion and crisis.

    There’s just too many different axes and parameters one can combine (shape vs. inclination vs. behavior vs. history vs. chromosomes, just to start) and insisting that we have a separate special name for each one of those bins quickly produces nothing but gibberish. And given the spread in the definitions, I’m not so sure that picking some of these categories will, in fact, provide that much information to other people.

    (It will, however, show that you are a hipster overcome with gender angst, and I guess that’s what really counts.)

  29. John425 says:

    Quelle bullsheet. It’s Male, Female, or Other. Can you imagine trying to put all this hair-splitting into a Census report?

    No doubt 50 different racial categories will be coming soon, as in listing one’s self as Black, light Black, medium Brown, and that “wonderful” term from the old South- Octaroon. Not to be left out, there’s Nordic white, Aryan white, Mediterranean white-ad nauseam.

    Put it on a ballot and let’s see how FUBAR it will get.

  30. Gustopher says:

    The level of complexity means it really should be an essay question rather than multiple choice.

    And with 50 gender options, why only three pronoun options? What about the zie and those things?

  31. Neil Hudelson says:


    Again, just because you don’t understand something, that doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes you ignorant/stupid.

  32. Neil Hudelson says:


    Only three pronouns in the English language of course. Other languages have gender neutral pronouns. I would even guess that of the hundreds (thousands?) of current languages, and the many many thousands of languages that have existed in history, there have probably been languages that do better account for gender disparities.

    Of course reality should define language, not the other way around. After studying a few others languages, I’m always surprised the English language hasn’t evolved to account for at least a gender-neutral singular “human” pronoun (ie, not “it”).

  33. anjin-san says:

    @ John425

    Quelle bullsheet. It’s Male, Female, or Other. Can you imagine trying to put all this hair-splitting into a Census report?

    It’s not a census report. It’s a corporation and it’s users. How exactly is the interaction between them any of your business?

    Feel free to boycott FaceBook if it means that much to you. In the meantime, how about respecting the personal freedom of FB users?

  34. Joe Carter says:

    There was once a time (about 5-6 years ago), when people would come to OTB to hear Dr. Joyner skewer this sort of politically correct nonsense with his inimitable brand of common sense.

    Now we get stuff like this — “it never occurred to me to wonder why additional choices weren’t provided—is an indicator of privilege” — in which he sounds like a freshman women’s studies major.

    What in the world happened to Dr. Joyner and OTB?

  35. grumpy realist says:

    @Neil Hudelson: There’s been some really good science fiction written along these lines. I think “Shadow Man” by Melissa Scott is probably the best. In the world she outlined, there had been actual physical effects on human sexuality splitting humanity into many more genders. The book is set on a planet where everyone is forced to pick one sex–male or female–and the social strains that get set up by that.

    The fact is, trans, would-be trans and hermaphrodites and similar are a very minute part of the population and are most likely to be lumped by the average person into a category of “other”. Which is why the range of choices on the Facebook list is probably going to be useful only to an extremely small population. What they should have done is put (male) (female ) (other) and then expanded the (other) list for people who wanted to define themselves further. The way they’re doing it now, it’s just going to piss off the 95% of the population that doesn’t want to wade through the list.

  36. PJ says:

    @Joe Carter:

    What in the world happened to Dr. Joyner and OTB?

    Maybe he and the site have evolved?
    Just because you may be stuck with the same views for the rest of your life doesn’t mean that everyone will be.

  37. Mike Alexander says:


    I guess I don’t understand the point of so many terms. The page owner may select a term because it means one thing to them, but it could well mean different things to visitors. If so how is this communicating what the person is?

  38. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @grumpy realist: I agree… But disagree. Think of it this way: We are really confused about this stuff. Imagine for a second having to live with the reality of it every minute of every hour of every day? I look at a list like this and can only be grateful for the fact that all my pickup lines amounted to: “Me straight man. You female. Wanna fwck?”

  39. OzarkHillbilly says:


    No doubt 50 different racial categories

    If there is one for “Complete Idiot” I know where you will be.

  40. Tyrell says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: That “trans fluid” category: what in the world? Doesn’t sound very nice. They need to add Klingon, and Cougar!

  41. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Joe Carter: He listened to others and realized the world does not fit into the neat little boxes he grew up thinking it did. Maybe you should try the same?

  42. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tyrell: Bob? It don’t have to make sense to you or me. If it makes sense to them, what do you care?

  43. James Joyner says:

    @Joe Carter: If you search the OTB archives for “transgender,” you don’t find a lot of early commentary. The earliest post, and perhaps the only one that seems to fit your recollection, is a May 2004 post titled “Harvard’s Confusing Bathrooms.” I don’t disagree with that post.

    But I suppose my views have evolved on the issue, starting with an experience that I recounted in an April 2007 post:

    I don’t pretend to understand what someone who is so sure that their body doesn’t match up with their sexual identity goes through, let alone someone who has lived 40-odd years in a man’s and is so bound and determined to finally look like the woman he thinks he is to do the things required to make that transformation. Fortunately, I’ve always been among the vast majority whose sexual identity and orientation conformed with his biology. And, frankly, I’m Southern and small-c conservative enough to find the whole thing more than a little odd.

    Then again, I’ve known someone who has gone through the process. Ironically s/he is a sportswriter.

    Chris Kahrl, one of the authors of the seminal SABR works, Baseball Prospectus, was the sports editor at Brassey’s at the time I was there on the international affairs beat. A couple months before I left, Chris announced that he was in the early stages of becoming Christina.
    I lost touch with Chris (and most of the Brassey’s gang) after that but Christina Kahrl is doing quite well professionally, writing under the new byline. She’s the lead editor in the 2007 Prospectus.

    I was shocked when Chris announced that s/he was not only transgendered but in the process of undergoing gender reassignment. Not only did Chris seem quite masculine to me but the very notion was just bizarre. But learning about the process—including the nature of the surgery—convinced me that there was something real there. The short version of which is: there’s no amount of money that they could pay either your or me to turn our penis into a vagina and live the rest of our lives as women. It’s just too fundamental to who we are.

    The point of the “privilege” argument isn’t that we don’t have the right to think it’s all bizarre. It’s just that, thankfully, it never occurred to either of us that we weren’t boys and going to grow into men. Even better, well before I had any erotic sexual inclinations, I was instinctively attracted to pretty girls. That’s “privilege” because it’s far, far more advantageous than the alternative positions—being transgendered or homosexual—and completely unearned. I didn’t chose to be who I am sexually, much less work for it. I’m simply “normal.” I’m happy that’s the case and have no desire to change it. I’ve just come to understand that the same is true of people who are “abnormal.”

  44. Andre Kenji says:

    Errr, that´s not politically correct. There is no “transgender”, because most people that are classified as such identifies themselves either as a woman or as a man.

  45. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: James, it is posts like this that make me wish…. Naaaahh, I still want to say, “Grow the f’ up.” but I am glad there are people like you around who are far more eloquent and patient than I. Mostly it’s the patience I think.

    a tip o’ the hat….

  46. anjin-san says:

    common sense

    I love conservative “common sense” – which basically amounts to trying to return us to the 1950s. And not event the real 1950s, more like an imaginary version they cobbled together from watching TV reruns.

  47. @Joe Carter: “What in the world happened to Dr. Joyner and OTB?”

    He grew up.

  48. David in KC says:

    I think James has the part on language right. It does take time for language to evolve. There really has not been a lot of public discussion on gender identity to the point where language has begun to adequately address these issues. Hell, people who are experiencing alternate gender identity questions often lack the language to adequately express their identity. Look at how homosexuals refer to themselves, while gay and lesbian are prevalent, that has not always been the case and is still by no means universal. I do think what Facebook has done is a step in the right direction.

  49. asdfasdf says:

    @grumpy realist: I think a prevalent sentiment is actually that categories are not an efficient way to describe the variety of people’s gender experiences.

    Facebook has a difficult position. If they keep the two categories (male/female), that is not enough to meet the needs of gender expression of many of its users. If they forgo the category scheme altogether, many more people will use the system to make jokes about gender identity. Additionally, text input like that would likely not be as useful, data-wise for Facebook.

    Instead, they took a middle road, which I believe is the best: After consultation, they came up with a list of gender identity terms that they believe will meet the needs of most of its users. This list may seem long to a lot of people, but to each person, it’s really a question of “Does it have what I identify as?” I applaud Facebook for trying so hard to make sure the answer to that question is “Yes” for as many people as possible.

  50. Franklin says:

    @grumpy realist: OK, that post said what I wanted to say, but much better. And in a way that I don’t have the ability to.

  51. John425 says:

    @anjin-san: Hey, butthead- I was positing the possibility that this farcical listing could evolve into a government preferences list and the government, being the government, would bring it to absurdity.

    Continuing on, OzarkHillbilly lives up to his/her screen name..

  52. Tyrell says:

    This is just more labeling, categorizing, dividing up, confusing, disunity, and stereotyping. If some of those labels were put on a person or mentioned in public, somebody is going to get mad. Some look like they were dreamed up as somebody’s idea of a joke. I would say that there are many that most people have never heard of.
    One category only is needed: person. That is all we need to know.