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

  • Great upgrade! Been waiting for this for a long fucking time now…Thanks!

  • Gianfranco

    Very nice post! I like it and I agree on adopting a text field.
    I was not realising the thing while reading and I had to go to my Diaspora profile to find out that… yes, it’s a text field I filled up with the (from now on) bureaucratic, boring “Male”. :)
    Have a nice day!

  • balco pollon


  • LOVE the field for gender, excellent idea and one i wish was adopted in more places. thank you!

  • Well, in the open source you don’t have to be too much conscious whether the person is male or female. It takes care of almost everyone and in every way. In spite of the fact that today gender contemplation does not hold prominence many people have given their ideas right here.

  • GREAT sfuff!!!! :-))This is exactly the kind of thing we need to see happening.

  • […] you’re interested in usability and/or gender, the comments on Mei’s explanatory post are an interesting read. A lot of people congratulated or thanked Mei, but some were annoyed. […]

  • Cleodhna

    I salute you.

    A while ago I went for an eye exam. Routine enough, but the person working the computer couldn’t get it to progress. Eventually, a manager type came by, and she half-sorted the problem: a required field was not filled out (the full problem turned out to be that and that the computer objected to the spelling of my name, so my eye exam is under Cleo). So we got to talking about required fields, and it turns out gender is one, and it is, indeed, a drop-down, two options only. I asked ‘What about transexuals?’ and both people– normal, professional women, the sort you see every day all the time– were like ‘I know!’ To me, and to these two random people I just met, gender is not a two box thing. I suspect that for most people, it isn’t, and that actually, the majority of people are accepting of people’s having a gender identity that doesn’t fit in one of two boxes. The more it is out in the open, the easier it will be on all of us.

    Thank you, therefore, for your contribution. It matters.

  • Years ago, Reader’s Digest (!!!!!!) set me thinking. It reported how a little Chinese woman entered migration, and was admonished for not filling in her I-94 completely. Impatient, the officer pointed to the box on the form that required sex. She shrugged. “Sometimes”, she said.
    Love the good work and truly open thinking.

  • Whatever we say about English, the fact remains that we just can’t avoid that. It has gained an international reputation.

  • Like the idea. On thing puzzles me though. I have international friends and I would prefer each of them to see my gender in their language. My suggestion is to use a dropdown plus an ”add your own“ field. All user added gender terms should be published so other users can provide translations. Terms used by many with translations available should be included into the dropdown. What do you think?

  • Transfinite

    Kathleen, that blog post is hideous and transphobic.

    “If you’re MtF, you can be killed because someone thinks you really are a woman.” Implying they AREN’T really women?

    “FtMs face a similar dilemma. You can be killed for being a woman in a vulnerable situation, or you can be killed for the outrageous condition of not really being a man” FtMs ARE men. Not women.

    Violence against women is a horrible thing that’s deeply entrenched in our society, but trans people aren’t “denying” anything. I’m not “denying” misogyny by saying I’m not a woman, because I’m not a woman. Pieces of shit like you might treat me like one just because I have breasts, but that’s not because I’m “really” anything — it’s because you’re a transphobe.

  • An excellent decision of yours – highly sensitive, sensible, making sense in every conceivable way.

  • Cozen


  • […] Pour en connaître plus sur les raisons de ce choix de la développeuse Sarah Mei, allez voir son blog. Les fondateurs : Raphael Sofaer, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Dan Grippi, Raphael […]

  • Props, you get over 9000 internets. Thank you for supporting choice.

  • carol d

    I like this. I would fill it in like this. Gender: less important all the time.

  • […] why other options aren’t available. Facebook-alternative Diaspora alluded to this when it made gender an open-ended text field rather than a multiple-choice question. Now that Facebook has gone a step further with its […]

  • […] networking site touted as a "Facebook killer," made the decision to code its gender option as a text field. Diaspora users can insert anything they choose as a […]

  • […] And Diaspora has already generated some controversy, believe it or not.  And over something I find ridiculous – a major blogger has objected to the fact that the gender field is not limited to male and female.  This strikes me as being pretty ludicrous, to be honest.  While the author has a point that for developers trying to integrate with the system might a simple m/f field in order to do things like correctly choose pronouns, etc I think that it would be no big deal for someone wanting to do that to add their own ‘sex’ field.  Especially since the modern every day definitions of sex and gender don’t match the “hard, linguistic meaning” that he prefers.  Making gender fluid shows a great deal of sensitivity to modern sociological issues such as transgenderism, etc and matches the modern every day usage of the word gender as well.  Sex, in contrast, now means what gender formerly did (as an example – does you driver’s license list you as having a sex, or a gender?  A sex, I’m sure)  Sarah Mei, the developer responsible, addresses these issues on her blog. […]

  • […] the open source social network currently under development (alpha), sparked a minor controversy online last fall by making its gender field be a text field instead of a multiple choice drop-down […]

  • […] bitchy and passive/aggressive alter-egoGender is a text field Posted on March 2, 2011 by GinaSarah Mei was fooling around with JavaScript and decided to get rid of the binary male/female options when […]

  • […] Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora (tags: article editorial technology socialnetworking) […]

  • […] fanns nån annan som tyckte det var viktigt att få välja själv: Sarah Mei fixade till  i Diaspora: ett textfält. Fritt fram att definiera […]

  • Like as probably has been said – social networks like Facebook, Live Journal et al, could do with this.

  • […] As Sarah Mei describes in her Nov 2011 post, Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora” […]

  • Alex

    The only reason people destructively and negatively comment on this is because without a fixed male/female field, it is extremely difficult to data mine and so, to target audiences in automated software, by creating real freedom and security on the internet’s social scene. I for one think this is Disapora’s “coding” master piece and should be supported fully. It is time to change old ideas into more modern, progressive ideas. All is well about tradition, but i wouldn’t put chicken’s shit on my wounds as it was tradition in ancient times. Good work Sarah, keep it up.


  • thanks for looking out for the little “guy!”

  • Hey, now that we have all these tagging features in Diaspora, couldn’t you make the gender textfield “taggable” as well?

  • Brian Routh

    this is nuts! most people can’t even figure out how to use something as straightforward as FB…there’s no way in hell they could figure this mess out.

  • Aki

    I noticed and loved this. And well, for those who think the whole gender discussion is stupid, you can still put in “Male” or “Female” with no harm done.

  • prowse

    Silly rabbit(and that IS a gender, btw); Facebook beat you to it by about 2 months. THey have 8 drop-down choices, they 8th being “Other” with space to express your gender. But, still a great idea.

  • prowse

    oops, Facebook has 8 hard-coded choices using radio buttons (not drop), the 8th being Other.

  • Apparently you have a ‘special’ version of facebook as everyone else still has a dropdown with two choices. :)

  • genderqueer

    Thanks for doing this! I’m more in the closet about being genderqueer than I am about being bisexual(out) or atheist(half-out), which is saying a lot!!! It is a huge relief anytime you come across an accepting or at least open institution/group. When cis-gendered people come across this “space” for other genders on an official application, it will get them thinking and the authority of the source (ya’ll) will lend the genderqueer community much needed legitimacy. Very cool.

  • […] have. On forms with only two choices, I’ll shrug and check “female,” or abstain. Where gender is a text field, I will reward that with a more thoughtful answer. And on my own blog, where I can answer in […]

  • Cormac

    I couldn’t care less whether the field is freetext or not. I don’t care how a person identifies themselves. I just hate that the word “gender” has been ripped out of its comfortable use in grammar, and hammered into the place where the perfectly good word “sex” used to be.

    Tilting at windmills I may be, but I’ll never accept that political silliness. A person’s “sex” can be female, or any other flavour through the whole spectrum to the voldemort “sex” that dare not say its name – “male”. But gender refers to grammar.


  • Cormac: +1000 for correct usage of “couldn’t care less.” :)

  • Saplot

    Whoa, I’ve long been looking for this kind of progress in form. Thank you very much. (And, english-speaking people, you have the singular they ; we, french speakinf have not “on” is far to ugly. I think a wished pronoun field would be useful…)

  • wei dong

    “broken faggot”

  • I think a gender identity is the way in which an individual identifies with a gender category, for example, as being either a man or a woman, or in some cases being neither, which can be distinct from biological sex.

  • […] choose male or female, how would the site know what pronoun to call you? (this was snark, btw). (read about it here). As I said before, Facebook solves my lack of gender choice by calling me ‘their’ […]

  • […] Sarah Mei “Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora” […]

  • Thanks for this post, very nice.

  • Thanks for this. My gender has looked like this: genderqueer cis-female(nice to have a fill in the blank option for once!)
    for the last half a year or so. I have many genderqueer(of one sort or another) friends and this has really made them happy. <3