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

  • Yes! This is great. I fit into a pretty conventional gender box, for the most part, but I still philosophically resent being forced by most sites to pick between two rigidly polarised selections that require me to label myself in a way that rejects absolutely my inner femininity or just makes me invisible. Despite being almost as guy as can be, I often choose “Female” just to thwart the machine a bit. I’m sure the biggest reason for forcing one of two on us is so that sites can better target advertising but it’s still an offensive rejection of all of those among us who have more complicated gender identities than the X-or-Y choice.

  • Austin

    Gender: Decepticon

  • I like and respect this change, but the one problem you could have is attempting to refer to the person in a male or female form.

    It’s uncommon in english, as the language is highly impersonal but when Diaspora launches in other languages like Spanish or Japanese, and the language forces you to use the male or female form. What happens then?


  • How a person wishes to be addressed by the software is a language setting. Although some people think it’s directly connected to gender, it’s actually separate. This change just formally separates them.

  • Oh, I know that, but now it needs an additional setting somewhere to ask how you’d like the software to refer to yourself (He, she, it, whatever).

    I write a lot of multilingual web software, and when creating email templates, that’s the biggest issue we’ve had:

    Dear Sir (or Madam) <— (Looks weird, if software knew your how to refer to you it wouldn't have to refer to you as both)

    Good luck with the project, looking forward to leaving Facebook for good.

  • jurrabi

    I love one reason above all else: I did it because I can 😉

    Seriously, never thought about it, but now that I have (a little bit), thanks to you, I think it’s a good idea to have a text gender field.

    Mine would say: “I wouldn’t mind”.

    ps. I had many problems with the captcha to comment and can’t figure out why. Just FYI Using chrome browser.

  • tkalen

    Nice change. I too had issues with CAPTCHA and lost a comment that was much more eloquent. Maybe I will recreate it someday.

  • Sorry about the CAPTCHA. I’ll try to figure out what’s going on.

  • blue

    This is the first step on the road to getting rid of those stupid “MEN” and “WOMEN” labels on public toilets. There is only one sewage processing system. Human waste knows no gender. Why do we have to pass through gender-specific portals to get our waste into the sewage system?

  • Hey, it’s great to see that diaspora leaves room to leave it up to the person to decide who she or he or whoever is :)

  • Tony

    That is so bright! GLAD to see that somebody out there is getting it. Hope Diaspora starts a trend, cuz some of us want to be -specific- !!

    ** << Two gold stars

  • spidey

    > This is the first step on the road to getting rid of those stupid “MEN” and “WOMEN” labels on public toilets.

    I’d also prefer labels like “Pee standing up” and “Pee sitting down”.

  • How can I learn to be a good back-end engineer?…

    A random list off the top of my head: Always assume that your code has bugs in it somewhere. (This is just good general soft. eng. practice.) This means: Be good at testing; aim for total test coverage, get your code under continuous integration as ear…

  • […] een leuk weetje: Waarom is het veld “Gender” een tekstveld in […]

  • […] invĂ€ndning svarar ingenjören och hjĂ€rnan bakom genus-textfĂ€ltet pĂ„ i sin blogg. Hen skriver: ”Jag gjorde den hĂ€r förĂ€ndringen för att ge mĂ€nniskor ett tillfĂ€lle att […]

  • tarinz

    You will change the world, and it will be a better place.

  • Ben

    Someone suggested that there be a drop-down menu, with a text field for the “Other” option.

    First of all, from a developer’s standpoint, this is messy. It means more test cases, and it doesn’t really achieve anything. For this change to make any sense, it won’t be used for decision-making in the software; it will be a string attached to the user’s profile, and little more. Sarah’s comment about language options seems to support this.

    In the end, you’re going to need to return a string. If the user selects male/man or female/woman, you’re going to get the same thing. It doesn’t achieve anything for the platform; it just adds lines of code to return a hard-coded string. Easier to just grab the string and trust the user to enter the mainstream values, if they apply.

    Also, politically, it’s not much better than man/woman/other options. In some ways, it’s worse. Unless you’re cisgendered or fully transitioned, it’s likely that you will have to select the Other option before you can give an appropriate response. This is like saying “well, these are the normal options. You don’t fit into either of them. Honestly, we’re not sure what to do with you, so we’ll refer you to our fallback option”. In a society which tends to either ridicule or ignore non-cis folk, this is rather insulting.

    It’s easier for developers and nicer for users who would enter a non-mainstream value to leave it as a text box, and the field as a string.

  • Ellery

    I agree with Ben. From a coding perspective, it just feels messy and not as useful.

    From a political perspective, Gender *is* binary. XX or XY. If you’re referring to people’s sexual idiosyncrasies, then you should add an additional field for that.

  • Ben

    Ellery, I don’t think you understood my comment. I very strongly support gender as a text field. I was addressing a specific comment, which suggested a dropdown box and then a text field for “Other”, which I argue makes for messy code compared to a plain text field.

    Some things to clear up, in case you’ve not read earlier comments:

    From a perspective informed by reality, gender and sex are not interchangeable. Even XX or XY is an oversimplification (sex is not binary). There are people born with both sets of genitals. There are people who are born biologically female and genetically male. It’d not that simple.

    Gender is an identity of social origin. People are (almost universally) assigned a gender at birth based on their biological sex. This does not dictate their gender throughout their lives. I know many people who have chosen to reject their assigned gender. This is not necessarily the same as trans*; some identify as gender queer, or non-gendered. Gender is a rich and thoroughly non-categorical field. This is why a text field makes sense.

    Also, do not confuse gender and sexuality. The two are very, very different. Within the trans* community, there is a variety of sexual identities (although pansexuality tends to dominate, in my experience). There are trans* folk who are gay, and others who are straight. Some are kinky, some vanilla. Some are sexually adventurous while others are rather subdued. Gender and sexuality cannot be lumped together.

  • Ben

    I should stress, not incredibly messy code. It would only be five lines of code, I’d imagine. My point was that this suggestion does nothing for developers over the current implementation and represents a significant step backwards in properly addressing non-mainstream gender identities.

  • @Sarah Mei

    “How a person wishes to be addressed by the software is a language setting. Although some people think it’s directly connected to gender, it’s actually separate.”

    Thanks for a super clear and concise way of putting it.

  • I’d say this suggestion is a sign it’s working. Someone was apparently forced to think, and they didn’t like it. Funny how they keep calling the decision to have a text box for gender specification »childish« without any further explanation.

  • I like and respect this! i’m not a user yet but looking really forward to be one. My question is and correct me if I’m wrong: Aren’t there queries where you could benefit from having a gender tag. Like showing all the male/female/other in a special region ore if you plan to sell adds ore something. Just thinking aloud and happy that i hopefully soon can post my gender as “LAMP”.

  • black ant

    it’s a brilliant idea. those little things will make diaspora great!

  • mena

    Please do the same with “relationship status” .-)

  • mama.nin

    YES!!!! I am *wonderfully* impressed and THRILLED that you have taken such a commendable first step in tackling such an ingrained and deeply hegemonic form of heteronormativity that few people (especially few straight people) EVER recognize!!! You are an activist of the highest order. Thank you.

  • as a trans person, for whatever reasons you did it. Thank you.

  • Tiak

    How about having a dropdown menu that has an “Other…” option, which then turns the entry into a text box? The people complaining about needing categories to fit into would get their categories, and anyone wanting to enter their own would get that. It’s maybe 3 minutes of javascript, and the server would treat the received string the same way regardless…

    PS: As someone who has broken various CAPTCHAs (mostly for entertainment), I have to say that si captcha seems pretty damn horrible all-around.

  • Jim

    I have many friends of differing gender choices. I thank you for this important development.

    For my own, I think it would have to be: Don’t touch my junk if you please Mr. Customs Man.

  • Ben

    perhaps users could specify what gender pronouns they would like the program to use for them, that would be cool too.

  • […] where the person who developed it that way explains why. […]

  • udoobu

    @blue Because there are plenty of creepy dudes out there that would take full advantage of a coed bathroom system. Fool.

  • AP2

    @Ellery: “From a political perspective, Gender *is* binary. XX or XY.”

    Actually, no. Go read about Klinefelter’s syndrome.

    “Klinefelter’s syndrome, 47, XXY, or XXY syndrome is a condition in which human males have an extra X chromosome. While females have an XX chromosomal makeup, and males an XY, affected individuals have at least two X chromosomes and at least one Y chromosome.
    In humans, Klinefelter’s syndrome is the most common sex chromosome disorder and the second most common condition caused by the presence of extra chromosomes. The condition exists in roughly 1 out of every 1,000 males. One in every 500 males has an extra X chromosome but does not have the syndrome.”

  • Vulcan

    All this effort could have been better spent elsewhere. M/F and blank ought to be good enough for everyone.

  • Marcelo

    Some people are terribly missing the point here. First of all, there is sex and there is gender, which are two different concepts.
    Sex is usually a pretty objective property of a being. There is the genetic sex, which is determined be the genome, and in humans it is mostly XX (female) od XY (male), but can be different because od genetically annomalies and other factors. And yes, it can also change, as some reported in some rare cases of bone transplant. There is also the legal sex, that may vary from the usual 2 values to 6 in some countries as Switzerland. Because of this, it is a multivalued property, since some countries may not recognized your original sex. This may change due to transsexual procedures. Sex also apllies to other beings, as animals and plants, usually only in the genetic sense.
    Gender, on the other way, is a social property, and referes to the way a person is perceived and interacts inside a society. It is thus not only subjective but may vary a lot dependind on the community inside of which you are interacting. One may be plainly bold about hos sexual preferences while in a bar community but highly discrete in a office group.
    So, although you can set prefixed values for sex, and usually 5 (male-female-ambiguous-indetermined-unknown) is enough, gender must have always a free choice. Please refer to human resources ontological studies for futher material on that.
    Congatulations for finnaly setting this correctly. A free text box is the only correct choice here, since the sex property would be relevant only for medical or legal purposes.

  • thank you. well thought-out. well done. nicely articulated. thanks for starting the conversation.

  • […] she is the developer who made the decision that gender should be a text field in the Diaspora social networking […]

  • ĂŒberRegenbogen

    gender: lowercase

  • Alex

    Thank you! This is a great idea! I was sincerely hoping that someone would think about it in a social network.
    I would like to contribute to the test the alpha version but unfortunately I arrived late. If there’s the possibility to get in, please email me. Thank you!

  • Jay

    Just wanted to add my voice saying I think this is a wonderful idea and I’m glad this decision was made.

  • […] Sarah Mei » Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora: Sarah Mei: Hvorfor køn er et fritekstfelt i Diaspora http://is.gd/irqlq (via @klast) (via:twitterfeed ) […]

  • Del

    Background info: In diaspora it doesn’t matter, but for medical records analysis it’s useful to know that “Male”, “male”, “M”, and “m” are all the same, which they aren’t if gender is a text field. So when entering data into a pathology patient analysis form you need to have a drop down not a text field. The lab that I worked for had 9 possible entries in this field, all of which were significant for analysing results of certain tests. So I think we’re a long way past the stage where “M” and “F” are the valid alternatives for gender.

  • mark

    I think they need a “race” field. This can be “black”, “white”, or “other”

    Also a “religion” field, which can be “christian” and “other”

  • you do realise this sort of change will make it harder to ‘monetize’ diaspora? how can we carefully target ads when users aren’t putting themselves in pigeon holes for us to shoot at?

  • Jonan

    I like this feature but I see a problem.
    What happens with translations? I might have friends that use different languages to browse diaspora. If the field was fixed (or male/female/other) those text could be translated. Currently all my contacts will see that field in English, and that’s a pity.

  • With the exception of people born intersexed, gender is binary. Why muck it up like this? Instead, if you’re really concerned about alienating people, then there should be a dropdown for gender and a free-form text field for “sexual identity”. Either that, or rename the “gender” field to “sexual identity”, since a person’s sexual identity is what you seem to care more about.

  • Londubh

    You win 3 Million Internets.
    Even as a (mostly) cis guy, I am ecstatic that you’ve done this.

    @Christopher Parker: There’s a problem with “sexual identity” in that it’s a completely different thing. We’re talking two axes, gender: what you identify as personally, and sexuality: what you’re interested in.

  • TransDude

    I’ve been waiting for a Diaspora invite since summer (yes, before they went out) because FB hasn’t met my needs. One of the ways they didn’t meet my needs was when they mandated completing a m/f sex field. Thank you for making me want a Diaspora invitation even more!

  • I’m a simple heterosexual male, but some of my friends are not. I would not like to have to force a bi or trans friend to decide whether to guess or to prevaricate! Even DNA testing isn’t a certainty – a few, admittedly very few, people are chimeras, genetically speaking. So let’s keep it simple and celebrate the free text field. Personally, I’m delighted with this tiny little detail which shows why Diaspora is going to replace Facebook etc for people who think.

  • Per Wigren

    I wish the whole would was as smart and open minded as you!