classifying gender

How we classify gender has come up for the second time in a month. First, Naomi Gleit on the Facebook Blog, brought up the subject during a discussion about the difficulties that translating Facebook user gender classifications into multiple languages:

[W]e’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks. When you make a selection, that will appear in Mini-Feed and News Feed stories about you, but it won’t be searchable or displayed in your Basic Information.

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account, including how we refer to you in Mini-Feed.

No-one from those groups who were supposedly pushing back offered any comments to the blog post, so it is not clear what they think of the decision.

Today, the New York Times reported that “Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have set up a sex-determination laboratory to evaluate ‘suspect’ female athletes.” The women who have male-specific features will have to undergo a series of tests to “evaluate an athlete’s external appearance, hormones and genes.” The practice dates back to the 1960s when it was believed that Russian men were posing as female athletes in order to gain advantage. It continues today because anabolic steroids taken by women often give them so-called male features. Since the testing began no athlete has been found to be cheating, but other life-altering information can be disclosed:

The tests never unmasked a man posing as a woman, but they did turn up several athletes who were born with genetic defects that made them appear — according to lab results, at least — to be men. In 1967, the Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was barred from the sport because she failed the chromosomal test, even though she had passed the nude test a year earlier. In the 1980s, the Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez Patino was disqualified because the test revealed, to her surprise, that she was born with a Y chromosome. Her eligibility was reinstated in 1988.

Almost everything in our lives is determined by classification systems—even gender is a matter of social determination—just as Fleck describes the social classification of the term “syphilis.” We as a society have determined (for now) that men are XY and women are XX (and we have classified as having “birth defects” and created disease names for those individuals who are born with, for example, XXY: Kleinfelter’s Syndrome). We have also made associations between those chromosomal types and external appearances: beards for men, breasts for women, and so forth.

And, yet, the situation is much more complex, and is located back in the womb, where hormones that don’t do what they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it can result in an individual who looks in every way like a woman, but in fact has an XY chromosomal pairing. Maria’s story (and the many others who share her biological characteristics) should be a wake-up call to Facebook that they might describe the gender groups’ complaints more than just “push-back.” Maria was reinstated as a woman, which in effect means that the Olympic committee determined that gender is defined by outward appearance, not chromosomal make-up. Others might make a different determination. (Update, 7/31/08) Note that Facebook’s decision for communities they claim to have a lot of respect for is for those members to “remove gender entirely”—that is, to make invisible a (if not, the) primary characteristic that defines these individuals (just as male is one of my primary defining classifications). For such a progressive online application their decision is disappointing. (End update)

Society has for a very long time classified gender into male and female—and it is a classification defined by humans, not one that is predefined for humans. Some consider a two-gender classification too limiting. They are, I suspect, quite right.

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