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

  • Alex

    This is great! I think people will finally think “yeah, why is this information needed?”. If they think their genitals will provide important information, they’re free to write what’s written in their passports. Everyone’s happy! ;D There will always be people who think freedom if choice is a threat of some kind (gender terrorism?) but they’re just lacking a life of their own. Keep being open minded!

  • Suggestion:
    Have a field for preferred pronoun set “he/him/his” such that those pronouns can be used in messages about the user e.g. “Robin added a photo to his gallery.”

    I got the idea from here:

  • It doesn’t bother me but I doubt the usefulness of this change. People either have a penis or they don’t. Their sexual preference/life philosophy doesn’t alter their gender.

  • I made gender a text field in my project, the Pittco LAN Administration System (PLAS). I’d tried to include a list of commonly used gender terms, but after reading this article, I was inspired. Thanks for that.

  • PR

    Great work! This is important.

  • Brendan

    @tynen I feel that just shows how ignorant you are, though. First of all, gender (societal construct) is not sex (biological construct) and is not sexual orientation (psychological construct). Second of all, it’s *not* a sexual preference, it’s sexual orientation.

    I’m fairly typical in the spectrum of gender-sex-orientation, so I don’t pretend to know everything. However, I invite you to look it up, read up on this, and make an attempt to understand about things before you go out and say things like “this doesn’t bother me”. It shouldn’t bother you; that should be the norm, and having this not bother you shouldn’t be something you’re proud of.

  • David

    What do you do when, in hearing and reading (or speaking and writing), you come upon the words “he” or “she” and “him” or “her”? Does it cause an upset in you to see people described in such black and white, binary terms? Would you prefer people who don’t fit into society’s such tight restrictions be described as “it”, “this” or “that”? or “s/he” and “hir”? I’m honestly curious.

  • Xena

    @ tynen:

    you posted: “It doesn’t bother me but I doubt the usefulness of this change. People either have a penis or they don’t. Their sexual preference/life philosophy doesn’t alter their gender.”

    don’t assume you have any idea if this will make a change for other people or not. you know little of the reality of people who live beyond the rigid gender binary that most of the world assumes to be natural. i for example sometimes have a penis and sometimes don’t. what does this make me? do you assume a person without a penis to be female? does that mean that a man who loses his penis becomes automatically female over night? or do you need a vagina to be female? and what if you have both? did you know that a significant percentage of people are born with anomalies like for example their genetic sex does not match their reproductive organs? does this make them male or female? did you know that people are given male or female hormones so they better fit in what is assumed to be their proper sex because of the shape of their genitals? and that children born with genitals that do not properly match one or the other sex are usually operated so they better conform to what is called the norm without asking them or waiting what they rather want? not seldom without properly informing the parents even? nearly EVERYthing in life informs ones gender, not just what you call “philosophy”. you cannot reduce it to penis/vagina. last but not least: of course your “philosophy” can change your sex! lots of people have sex changes. sometimes because of a choice they make. sometimes because they just know that their body is not right and they could not survive without a sex change. some people who decide to change their sex don’t want to just “switch over” to the other side. they might be in between, their bodies changed to a degree to match another gender but not completely. it makes life so much easier when i do not have to tell somebody the sex/gender that is noted on my birth record but can pick something that describes me best. that is not so much a problem on a social networking site, i admit. but there are situations when it might become impossible to do what you want or need to do because your appearance does not match your papers, like for example when crossing a border.

    these are just some eclectic ideas on the topic of how sex and gender are not just a simple “male-female-distinction” — at least not for everyone. it might give you inspiration to read some. it doesnt have to be a medical magazine or a doctoral thesis about queer theory. you could just buy a novel or a collection of poems dealing with transgender or intersexuality or other forms of crossing the gender binary system. there is a lot of stuff going on at the moment and many ways to learn about it. and i definitely think it does not just broaden ones horizon in an academic sense but it can feel liberating and inspiring to think out of the box and see how you dont need to restrict yourself to what you learned as a kid. yes, for some it is more liberating than for others but that only means to say that for some of us it is existential and for others just revolutionary in a less personal sense. and for others again it might not change their life but still be rousing :)

  • Xena

    @ david:

    no, “it” is usually used as and considered a derogatory term. but there have been many thoughts on the subject! for an overview about english language check out this:


    enjoy :)

  • Xena

    @ david:

    i forgot to mention that usually an easy and often-used way to deal with that problem is that people just use the plural. that works in many many instances in english, as for example in: “The person tip-toed towards the door and in order to stop them i cried: stop!”
    might be a crude example, but i couldnt make up a better one right now 😉 it is of course not quite correct grammatically but i think many consider that to be a lesser problem than the one that writing “he” would set the male as standard and to write “he or she” would still ignore the fact that the tip-toeing person might be neither…

  • Hale

    I can’t begin to describe the warm and fuzzy feeling I got just reading this. Thank you so much for being bold in the face of controversy.

  • But what if my gender is Little Bobby Tables…? 😉

    Love you for doing this, @sarahmei.

  • […] big news, for a lot of people, is that you can write in your own gender. There is no drop down, or check box. They haven’t even put in male or female as options. […]

  • I once met a young child who was very androgynous. Their mother said that they were frequently asked by almost strangers whether they were a boy or a girl, to which the ~6-year old would retort, “why do you care?” or sometimes, “elf.”

    The headmaster of a new school asked them, “that’s fine dear, so, when you change, will it be in the boy’s or the girl’s?”

    If there is a drop-down for anything, I would think it would be for pronoun preference referring to yourself. TG people I’ve known have often had specific requirements there. And there are probably 3 choices there (in English, at least, and ignoring all of the arcane polite forms).

  • To (possibly mis-)quote Iain M. Banks: “Brains are what matter, kids — gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over.”

  • Oh Well

    Until I read this I was very interested in the diaspora project.

  • Max

    @Xena: Your sentence is fine (some, like you, will claim it is gramatically suspect — I disagree). However (and Facebook does this), “John changed their profile picture” seems much more incorrect.

  • “Preferred pronouns” (or more generally, “preferred inflection”, since sometimes there are different verb forms, adjectives, etc.) is a language setting. It is sometimes correlated with gender, but often not.

    This change simply separates two concepts that most applications erroneously conflate.

  • Sönke Hahn

    That’s awesome. I did like the idea of diaspora before this, but now, I’m kind of excited.

  • Shua

    @Oh Well: You are the minority!
    I fit very solidly into the cultural gender binary, and I don’t really even personally know people who don’t. However as an anthropology student who has recently done some reading on the topic, I’ve learned a lot about of the misconceptions cleared up above.

    – People with non-standard genitalia are a lot more common than you might think (both a penis and a vagina, other combinations).
    – Doctors often “choose” to assign, or even REassign someone’s gender at birth (in botched circumcision cases, for example)
    – People can have the chromosome combination of one sex and have the genitalia of the opposite. This makes them genetically one sex and visibly another. This is how you see athletes stripped of their medals after “gender testing”… many people live with this and DON’T even know (ask your partner to get tested, Oh Well?)

    Also a note on terminology – “gender” refers to the culturally learned/applied role (how you identify), while “sex” is your physical, biological situation (what’s in your pants)

  • @Shua, and others, you might like this: Genderbread Person (thanks @veganstraightedge for the pointer!)

  • paul

    +1 for letting us choose our own pronouns. And +1 for making them free-text fields so I can be a “smartass” about it.

    @anyone-who-think-this-is-a-bad-idea, I’m almost definitely more of a “closed-minded” person on this issue than you are, and I still think this was the right thing to do. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was the OBVIOUSLY right thing to do.

    This project is (partly) about putting you in control of your information. That means you express and share your information however you want. If you want to express gender with something other than male/female then you should be able to do it. It doesn’t matter if I think you you are a horrible person for doing it. It doesn’t matter if every person in the world thinks you are a horrible person for doing it. It is YOUR information. It is YOUR profile. You get to do as you please.

  • Em

    @sarahmei: As a declared androgyne, I think you’re wonderful for doing this. Brought me a little hope that I might finally be recognized by mainstream society as a human being.

    @everyone whining about how there are only two/three genders: Either educate yourself on the difference between sex and gender (spending five minutes looking the terms up in a dictionary does not count), or find a cliff and jump off. Life is hard enough for us as it is without you insisting that we’re not really human.

  • Jamie

    I like the change; I think it’s quite brilliant. But, for now, I feel disinclined to store any personal information in a system whose design can be changed by one person on a whim: “I made it because I can.”

  • Re. use of they / them for singular, I like the genderless use of the plural. The plural / polite form of thou / thine => ‘you’ and ‘your’ is now acceptable by usage as correct.

  • Caroline

    Congratulations! So many online forms insist on an absurd binary answer when gender is of zero relevance to them anyway!

    I recently bought a nikon camera and the preamble said that they had no need to categorise by gender them online registration “insisted” on a binary answer!

    Congratulations for being one of the few open minded, thinking programmers in this world.

    The captcha assumes full colour vision, so many assumptions in this world.

    BTW, what is your favourite colour? Please tick one box only, BLACK or WHITE.

  • Jason

    I know this has been said a thousand times before, but it seems that those that have a problem with this change don’t understand the difference between gender and sex.

    Gender is identity, how you or society identifies you by preconceived notions of what role your sex plays in that society. (male, female, transgendered, lesbian, gay, x, alien)

    Sex is biological. (male, female, unknown/other)

    Working in the medical field, specifically as a programmer that works on a EMR system for a large medical center, we have both sex and gender fields in many places. As the ISO 5218 standard states for SEX, not GENDER, we use MALE, FEMALE, OTHER/UNKNOWN and send only M,F, or U out to downstreams including government databases for SEX. For our gender field, there is a free text field.

    I applaud your change and look forward to receiving my invite so I can try the site out!

  • @Jamie – if it had been a whim, it wouldn’t have been tested. 😉

    (Have a look at the changed file list here – for those of you unfamiliar with cucumber, files ending in .feature are automated acceptance tests.)

  • Aleksander

    The whole textbox gender description seems to be a great idea, but I think it lacks sortability and searchability. Isn’t a tag cloud better suited for that (as for most of profile information)?

    We could create a couple of separate tags in a “gender” field, for example:
    postgender, heterosexual, male
    all of which are chosen freely, without any lists.

    This way we can choose something wholly ours, and be able to find other users, who wish to make such an information public.

  • Joe

    what the hell? if the field is not going to be used for a specific and defined purpose in your database, then why bother having it at all? Dump the field and let people mention their orientation in their “aspect” or whatever it is. It’s great and all that you’re on a high horse getting down with your lbgtq brothers and sisters, but c’mon. the system is rife with failtastic crap and bugs up the wazoo and hardly works and you’re spending your time farting up the database? thanks!

  • Sarah Mei, thank you. I noticed the text field for gender when I signed up, and I appreciated it.

    All haters can piss off.

  • Ed

    I understand what you’re trying to do; accurately trying to capture the ambiguity of modern sexuality, but this is classic over-engineering.

    The select box with the 3 original options is the way to implement this, ignoring all the social / philosophical points (they should be reserved for another place), as far as development is concerned classification is vital (even with a percentage error).

  • @Ed – overengineering is when you design for classification when classification is not necessary or even desirable.

  • I noticed about the option to write whatever you want in the gender field today (when I started to fill the details of my profile in Diaspora). I think that’s a great idea and I would do it also in the date of birth. Why? Well, I’m Spanish and I don’t know if someone else told you already but in the Spanish translation for the profile the word for gender is “sexo”, which means gender and also sex. So I bet that many people will do as I did in mine:

    Sexo -> Sex
    Poco y espaciado -> A few and infrequent

    With the date of birth I could do the same if you give us the opportunity to write whatever we want:

    Nacido -> Born
    Para ser salvaje -> To be wild

    We could play with our creativity and sense of humour.
    Of course you could change the word “sexo” for “genero” which means only gender (the same for the date of birth), or return to the three classic options, but that will decrease our freedom and our chances of joking :)

    Thanks for your work.

  • Rapi Castillo

    That made me happy as well.

  • Jennifer

    I LOVE this open gender field

  • finally, a sane design choice wrt gender data

  • Ang

    This is really wonderful. Some of my friends are transgendered and I know that it can be really hurtful being in situations where a gender binary is assumed and there’s no scope to express how they actually identify.

    I’m concerned about a lot of what I see Facebook doing and have signed up to get an invite when Diaspora goes live. The fact you’re working so hard to be inclusive and recognise diversity really encourages me. I hope there’ll be a similar level of commitment to web accessibility standards.

  • Maggie

    Hey, if the singular ‘they’ is good enough as a gender-neutral pronoun for the Beeb, it’s good enough for me. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv236.shtml

    But in case others need more:

    Eche of theym sholde … make theymselfe redy. — Caxton, Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489)[32]
    Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock! — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
    ‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech. — Shakespeare, Hamlet
    I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly. — Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
    That’s always your way, Maim—always sailing in to help somebody before they’re hurt. — Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
    Caesar: “No, Cleopatra. No man goes to battle to be killed.” / Cleopatra: “But they do get killed”. — Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1901)
    (from wikipedia)

  • Is there any aspect of Diaspora that isn’t an epic failure in the making?

  • Thanks man for sharing this information with us.

  • Rick

    I suggest a select list: male, female, confused.

  • Gekkor McFadden

    Please post more fried chicken stories. If you don’t have any more fried chicken stories then a fried turkey story would be OK. Thanks!

  • Buckles Gill

    Words cannot express how awesome this is. From a very genderqueer person: Thank you!

  • Bob

    Ridiculous. Why not throw out all the other validation while you are at it? garbage in, garbage out

    Do we care whether someone is a pseudolesbiman? no. We want to know if they are to be called him, her or them, that’s all. A field that doesn’t answer that question or be programatically categorised is useless. Maybe you might want to know orientation information as well, but certainly not instead and certainly not in a completely open format that is no use for anything.

    Well done to all those who think this is a great idea because they feel the need for someone to validate their life choices, but you won’t think that it is so great when no one can add functionality because data was not given in a way that can be worked with programatically.

  • Thank you Sarah. Just to let you know there are transgender people using diaspora, for whom this change did not go unnoticed, or unappreciated. I am one of them. It is an amazing step forward for this burgeoning community.

  • Just wanted to chip in my two cents for support, which I’ve also done with my own blog post. I definitely agree that the modern use of the word gender covers a much broader range than the ‘hard linguistic meaning’ of male and female and that it shows a lot of sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards the user experience to embrace a wider definition. English is a dynamic living language, so of course linguistic libraries will always lag behind current usages. And the fact that any developer is free to modify this if they so choose, or add their own ‘sex’ field with a strict m/f choice, really makes the objections I’ve heard pretty moot. Especially since my driver’s license doesn’t list a gender – it lists a sex! So much for hard linguistics. If enough people want a sex field, I’m sure it will wind up being integrated in to the main trunk, just like any other feature. That’s how open source works.

    In other words: you go, girl! 😀

  • Vladimir

    Heheheheh. I like that idea of yours. Not only it doesn’t alienate people as you say, but it can give a chance to entertain.