Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

A few months ago, I started contributing to the Diaspora project. I began by refactoring their test suite and setting up a continuous integration server. Then I installed Jasmine and started mucking around with the JavaScript. That was all pretty straightforward.

A few weeks ago I made a slightly more controversial change.

The “gender” field in a person’s profile was originally a dropdown menu, with three choices: blank, male, and female. My change made it an optional text field that was blank to start. A wide open frontier! Enter anything you want.

For a while, only a few people noticed.

Screenshot of a github commit comment

But now that Diaspora is in private alpha, more people have started noticing – on twitter, in the bug tracker, and in GetSatisfaction, among other places. Some folks have asked why it’s not a dropdown with two options like everywhere else. So here’s why.

…what else is there?

Four years ago, at my first rails job, I worked at a company with a mostly-lesbian customer base. It turns out, in that context, knowing if someone is “male” or “female” gives you almost no useful information. The lesbian community has other widely-accepted categories of gender, but the company’s internal order tracking software — a well-known package from a national vendor — offered only male or female.

As a result, the company didn’t even bother to ask for gender when users created accounts.

That was my first real-life experience with the limitations of the gender binary. It was certainly interesting, but it was essentially academic. Not long after I left that job, though, one of my closest family members told me that he’s transgender. That made the whole subject way more immediate.

Now it’s personal

So in the last few years I’ve tried really hard to understand what being transgender means. I’ve done a lot of reading and talking and thinking about how we construct a gender identity, and how we perceive others’ gender. I’m certainly no expert, having not lived it myself. But I have discovered that my own gender identity is a bit more fluid than I thought. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of gender as an n-dimensional space, with two big clusters and a hell of a lot of outliers.

Then I met Sarah Dopp at She’s Geeky, and we talked about dropdown menus, and it all fell into place.


I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up.

I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list.

I know a lot of people aren’t there with me yet. So I also made this change to give them one momentary chance to consider other possibilities.

I made it to start a conversation.

I made it because I can.

And, of course, I made it so you can be a smartass.

a selection of the gender self-descriptions of my contacts on diaspora

a selection of the gender self-descriptions of my contacts on diaspora

Go out and have fun with it.

Diaspora is an open-source social network that puts you in control of your information. As of today, November 27th, we’ve been live less than a week. Here’s a quick overview of the project, and if you want more news, our blog. Thanks for visiting!

349 comments to Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

  • jon

    Well done, Sarah, and thanks for posting about it!

    Big win for Diaspora and it really changes how I think about the project.

  • Meg

    @Jack M
    That is the exact opposite of what this change does. Erasing difference, pretending that race isn’t a social/cultural force, isn’t progressive; it’s an alienating product of White privilege that leads to a failure to notice the very real racism that still exists in our society.

  • Harry Myhre

    Looking forward to using Diaspora

  • njptower

    just as race is not black and white, so gender is also not binary

  • Adam

    Reminded me of this blag post by Randall at XKCD: http://blog.xkcd.com/2010/05/06/sex-and-gender/

  • oneswellfoop

    That’s not so unique. Metafilter.com made Gender a text field for its members ten years ago. (In fact, the label on it said “Gender: (go nuts)”, prompting many unimaginative male users to enter “Nuts”)

  • Chiefted

    Thank You seems insignificant for this leap of faith but thank you

  • Andrius Bentkus

    Im a dolphin using diaspora. Will there be a race field?

    Freaking keyboards, not very dolphin friendly…

  • Alex

    As a genderqueer person, this is so great. When I was on facebook, in order to show different identities one had to utilize a facebook app (SGO+), but since Facebook got rid of boxes it was difficult to use or even show difference. So I just didn’t show my “sex”. And when I heard about diaspora I really hoped they would be queer/trans friendly from the start. And having gender as a text field is an AMAZING thing. I can’t express how wonderful that is. SO THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! (And I can’t wait for an invite!)

  • Erik

    People who don’t like this because of “data” reasons, and who want to include Male and Female in the list, are missing the idea of gender entirely. I, for one, love this and give it seven thumbs up. I’m happy to be in the private beta and will count this as another solid reason to become a member.

  • Nathan

    While I think it’s great that people who don’t identify as Male or Female are able to put an alternative that they feel comfortable with, the majority of users will still identify as one or the other. Surely from a usability perspective it’s a a retrograde step to make all users type in free text when you could provide a drop down of the most commonly used options. That isn’t some kind of endorsement of conventional gender descriptions, it’s just making life easier for the majority of users.

  • Mike

    Seems like a dumb change to me. Sorry.

    Male who used to be a female
    Female who used to be a male

    and you could even add in “Gender Preference” which could be a checkbox that uses all the same pretty much.

  • kat

    my engagement here is for encouragement to keep moving along. peace & hugs

  • […] Then I read this: Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora […]

  • Jennings

    From a usability perspective, I would do the following:

    Show a dropdown box with the following:
    – Male
    – Female
    – Other

    When a user selects ‘Other’, a text input box appears.

  • Kaye

    @Mike I sincerely hope you included “hermaphrodite” out of ignorance of the fact that it is an offensive term to use for a person. And what you listed is not gender, it’s sex.

    Frankly, I don’t see what the problem is. Everyone crying about user friendliness seems to think it’s such a huge imposition to type in a few words. It might not make a difference if you identify as a man or a woman and have the correspending sex, but a step like this makes a huge difference to people who identify differently. tl;dr it’s not all about you.

  • FINLLY. finally. this is exactly what i, and so many others, have been waiting for. thank you for acknowledging our experiences and existences.

  • There won’t be a dropdown plus a textfield. EVERYONE deserves the freedom to make shit up.

    My friends have had a ton of fun with it so far – both those within the binary, and those outside. It’s been awesome! :)

  • Eivind

    You rock !

    That’s all, really.

  • strangway

    From what I read in Popular Science, there are 5 human genders recognized by the scientific community.

    – Male
    – Female
    – Hermaphrodite
    – Fermaphrodite
    – Mermaphrodite

    The last 3 are often incorrectly lumped together as “Hermaphrodite,” though Ferm and Merm are variations of internal and external organs.

  • Isa

    Frankly the community site who best respects gender orientation is Qruiser (http://www.qruiser.com/). The choice they provide to self define oneself (see the description to be filled in the registration process when you create an account) is so well thought, I just don’t get why it is not already the worldwide standard. Of course, it is not surprising such a site was developped in European Nordic countries for queer people there…So I hope it will inspire the Diaspora project …

  • Gender is not a binary, it’s a trinary. There are three genders in the English language: male, female, and neuter. No amount of pleading will change this.

  • Ben Rosengart

    This is very cool. I like the way you think.

  • Benoit

    I think it introduces another problem: localization. I plan to add friends speaking various languages and this basically forces me to choose one.

    If you’re going to complexify anyway, I’d suggest adding autocomplete with “well known” or high-frequency values which can then be translated by the community.

  • Meanface

    I really like the idea of opening the field up and all, but how will you make it search friendly? Don’t a lot of people still use social networking sites to “find dates” or whatever?

  • Jeremy

    I agree with Jennings… it should be remembered that the vast majority of users will be “male” or “female”, so there should be something to ensure clean data for this, otherwise male becomes “M/male/Male/guy/man” plus any number of joke entries.

    I’m supportive of catering for people who don’t fit the usual two categories, but it shouldn’t damage the usability of the system and its data for everyone else.

  • James

    I don’t see why it needs to be a field in the first place, though I accept that it’s not really a problem to have it there. I would say that adding a Randall Munroe-style ‘Do you have a Y Chromosome’ field would successfully placate most of the complainers, but I’m not convinced either field would be useful for much more than data-mining (you don’t look at a facebook profile and go ‘OH GOD I NEED TO FIND OUT WHAT SEX THEY ARE’ – in fact, a quick straw poll around the office suggests that no-one ever looks at the gender field on a profile ^_~).

  • Andreas

    I fully acknoledge the issue of localization. Gender needs to automatically translate when I switch the language of the user interface. Trading gender barriers for language barriers will not help in building an international community. On facebook I switch between german and english status updates at will, still I have only one user profile which even my french facebook friends can view in their native language. Making gender freetext is very america centric design decision. It is not progress.

  • No

    There are only two genders, MALE or FEMALE. Nothing else.

  • Andreas

    To add to my last comment: Leaving out this field altogether would probably be a good compromise.

  • Andreas

    Thank yo so much! I love it!

  • jkgoose

    Call it lazy, I like drop downs male\female, but does it really matter? Put me down for stone.

  • Anon

    “have not heard of machine learning, clustering and other standard data analysis techniques?”

    That’s Disaspora for you: Over-engineering simple problems

    Not to mention those techniques aren’t developed enough to handle a situation like this, but hey, it looks good to name-drop all those terms!

    (Neural networks markov models genetic algorithms)

  • Anon

    “People who don’t like this because of “data” reasons, and who want to include Male and Female in the list, are missing the idea of gender entirely”

    Discussions on the “idea of gender” are great for pretentious college bull sessions, but in the real world, when you’re trying to build a network people actually want to use, you need to grow out of your silly ideas.

    YOU misunderstand the idea of gender: You think it’s more complicated and nebulous than it really is. Gender is real, it actually exists, and most people fall into simple, definable gender. Shades of grey exist, but they do NOT negate the black and white ends of the spectrum. You think you’re being progressive and diplomatic, but actually you’re being offensive, by telling me I’m not actually male, or someone else they’re not actually female. Get bent. Maybe you’re not much of a man, but I’m all man.

    My problem is that while those aforementioned shades of grey are real, they’re not infinite. If you want to embrace options beyond “gender binary”, then you need to figure out what the right ones are, and add them to the drop-down box.

    “But people will always have other things they want to write in there, so you can never list them all!”. You shouldn’t want to list them all, because some of the write-ins are pure BS. This is just idiotic, throwing reality out the window to be politically correct. The spectrum is not infinite, and some labels that people choose are just garbage. You don’t get to choose what your gender is. Just because it’s what you “identify” as, doesn’t mean it’s right or real. Sometimes you’re WRONG about your identity. I can say I’m 7’5″ 4’3″ but that doesn’t change the fact I’m 6′. Embrace tough love: Whittle it down to gender descriptions that actually coincide with reality and put those in one big box. If that’s ugly for UI reasons, use seamless AJAX autocomplete, instead of a mammoth drop-down box

  • What a pretentious load of bollocks. There are two genders in practically every organism living today, and only two in the ones who are able to use a computer. MALE, and FEMALE.

    Stop trying to be clever with your sociological arguments – you’re either male, or you’re female. If you have a penis, you’re male. If not, you’re female. If you lose your penis in an accident, you’re still a fucking bloke.

  • It’s a whole serious thing this perception of one’s gender – but I love the way I can have a little fun with it.

  • Dave Zirin's fan

    To try and make people stop and think, without delving into utter miscellany, surely a nested drop-down would work?

    male – cis
    – trans
    – genderqueer
    – other
    female – cis
    – trans
    – etc.
    other – intersex
    – stuff that should be here but i don’t know about or don’t remember this late australian time
    – etc.

  • Thanks for this. It made me cry in a good way for all sorts of reasons. Not least of all because people are so freaking creative. -Salome, gender: a roll of genetic dice

  • Canis

    @Steve Woods, you’re parading your ignorance in front of a crowd of educated people.

    1. Go look up the difference between gender and sex. You’re talking about sex, we’re talking about gender, they’re different.
    2. When you’ve done that, go look up intersex. You’ll find that even with regard to sex, and even with regard to humans, there are more than two biological sexes.
    3. This is about creating a personal network for people to represent themselves. It’s their profile, they can represent themselves however they want. If you insist on (inaccurately) labelling them “M” or “F” as your knuckles bounce off the rocks by your feet, that’s your problem, but you don’t get to decide how they identify themselves any more than you get to choose their name.

    Back on track: From a usability standpoint, I say stick with the freeform text field. But add drop-down autocomplete that pops up only after the first typed letter and narrows the list as you continue typing. Sort the list by popularity. This has a number of effects:

    – People can still type whatever they want
    – There’s no initial “push” towards any particular choice. You won’t even see Male or Female unless the first letter you type is an M or an F
    – Sorting by popularity offers the maximum utility to the maximum number of people since the most popular choices will require fewer keystrokes
    – By showing choices that others have picked, you can encourage creativity, and also offer reassurance — “yes, there are other people here who identify the same way you do”. eg you type F, and yes, at the top of the list is most likely Female (depending on your user-base, of coures!), but immediately under it are Femme, Flexible, Flavourful and Fabulous…
    – This may also settle down some of the “but but but… the data normalisation!” crowd as it very very lightly encourages people to cluster around common choices.

    Effectively, gender becomes a tag cloud. :)

  • James

    @Canis: I’d be very careful about calling people out as stupid, as you’re not using the terminology correctly yourself. This ‘Gender’ argument centres around Gender Identity, as opposed to Sex Determination. Although the word ‘Sex’ cannot always be used in place of ‘Gender’, ‘Gender’ CAN always be used in place of ‘Sex’. As you said yourself, look it up.

  • numpty

    Sorry, but by definition, there are only two genders whether we like it or not. People are of course welcome to attach any other labels to themselves that they wish, but it’s not particularly helpful or useful to use the Gender field for that.

  • Ohnanka

    Mike – You are talking about ‘sex,’ not ‘Gender.’
    ‘Gender’ is a social construction, ‘Sex,’ refers to biological physicality.

    many people accept their physical sex as a Man or Woman without accepting the pre-defined gender role that is assigned to it in society.

  • GSP

    A free text field feels very PC but runs contrary to the object of a social network to reduce people to a quantitative searchable dataset. Whether or not this is a good thing is a completely different argument, but it does seem to be what people want from their social networking experience as it helps them seek out people who are similar to themselves.

    It is impossible to accurately search or run analytics against a free-text field.

    Even for people who want to be searched by gender, you’ll end up with M, m, Male, Man, Homme, H, Hombre, mail, man, mlae, etc. Forget cross-language searching.

    We solved this in a previous project by having a drop-down for M/F/Other, then a free-text field for the user to populate if they selected “Other”. The first field should be an integer (0/1/-1) so the string for the gender can be normalized across languages.

    This also helps transgender folks to find each other as they can just search for “Gender=-1”.

  • Ohnanka

    Numpty, Steve, Anon – how is it helpful or unhelpful? If being ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ is so important, then just write that in the text field! I suspect most people, who feel like you, will! For people to whom Gender is irrelevant, or who, perhaps, feel strongly that the binary-system does not reflect who they are, then your rigid definition is neither helpful nor pretentious.

    Pretentious – pretence – falseness: People who would put something else *may* be being pretentious, but then so are many people when they put a handle instead of their real name, or an avatar to represent them that isn’t their real face. On the other hand, these people may also feel that those things represent them more correctly, or maybe it is basic security for their identity.

    Don’t accuse people of Pretension so freely. It might be pretentious for you to put, for example, ‘Gendernaut’ in that field, but with humour and understanding, another person might well use that to describe their exploration of their humanity.

    And anyway, how is having Either/Or or Nothing any better than having a free field? at least you’ll get *some* response where otherwise you might get none!

    (PS – I am aware my other post was unnecessary, I messed up, so sue me.)

  • Inez

    I think its great; but all the same, I am loving the discussion here.
    Mark states it perfectly: (Mark – November 27th, 2010 at 7:48 pm) “Binaries are fine for computation. But selves are not computable.”

    At least it proves we will not be farmed for advertisements based on gender. :)

  • Jayle Enn

    I haven’t coded in any real way in years, so it took me a second to realize the ramifications of that tiny change you made. Then my face split into the biggest grin I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

  • Kirst

    Seems that most complaints are coming from those who want to be able to search for males/females which is why I can see some joyous possibilities for this simple change :

    1. I won’t get men trying to add me and strike up lame flirty conversations just because they assume me to be interested in them because I’m a female. I don’t have to say I am.
    2. It will encourage people to open their minds about who they converse with – maybe the person who wanted to search for ‘men interested in IT in Germany’ will meet some women interested in IT in Germany who they are quite happy to talk to.
    3. I won’t have to sign up to society’s version of what it is to be ‘female’ just because I want to join a social networking site. I avoid this generalisation and loaded term in my real life so why would I want to use it online where, if anything, I should be free to act as I am without having to parse it within a gender.

  • Shirley

    Thank you very much for doing this and for publicising it. You may have an idea of how much it means, but most people won’t.