The 56 Genders
Updated: Sep 3, 2022
From a drop down menu to infinity...
In the long ago of 2014, Facebook extended its gender options with a drop-down menu for the first time. There full list of options was a surprising 56 list menu. However, the first thing to say about the list is that it does not—in fact—contain that many genders at all. First of all because many of the options were variants of each other. One person could be Cis; Cisgender; Cis Male; Cis Man; Cisgender Male and a Cisgender Man. Generously then, eliminating all such repetitions, you find only 28 options. But not all of these are genders either.
Cis means not-trans, that is, someone who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth. Trans means someone who identifies with a different gender. A trans and a cis women share a gender, as women. A trans man and a cis man, too. Transexual, also included, is arguably a (sometimes controversial) variant of trans. Male to Female and Female to Male, encompassed as well, describe the process of transitioning.
Intersex (also making the list) is not generally considered a gender, either; an intersex person can be cis (identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) or trans; furthermore, they can be a binary gender (man or woman) or nonbinary. And Gender Nonconforming is not a gender, but the state of not conforming to ones identified and/or socially prescribed gender/gender roles. Suddenly, we are down to a mere 16 options.
I would suggest all similar exhaustive lists of genders are in error, but creating a more extensive list was at the time a good step. While many options were not strictly genders, they all informed peoples’ sense of their gender and could be a way to better inform others. Offering people agency is not the problem. The problem is assuming a final cap on that agency. Leave it to individuals to write in their own gender, which Facebook now does. In short, allow for infinite genders.
The Kids are Alright
There are many more extant genders and ways to refer to gender than Facebook estimated. There are demigenders (people who identify as partially being a man, woman, or nonbinary). And besides the better known two-spirit (Native-American) gender, there are also many other culturally specific terms with their own layered historical meanings, such as fa’afafine (Samoa); hijra (South Asia); mahu (Tahiti and Hawaii). There are people who identify with xenogenders, as outside standard ways of classifying gender. Younger people especially, on and offline, have conceived creative ways to talk about themselves and their given or assumed gender.
Gender as a category tends to encompass many facets of who we are, and often young gender pioneers acknowledge that fact in their navigation of their own genders. But such an approach often meets with senseless hostility, sometimes of the most sneering and mocking type. Right now, however, it is not such sneering I want to highlight. More interesting is when the criticism comes from those otherwise sympathetic to people outside prescribed gender roles. This is usually not couched in mockery, but there remains some ineffable concern.
The idea of some large and specific number of genders, or of infinite ones, does not get attacked for any obvious reason. It does not cause any obvious social harms. Even the gender abolition project within the trans movement tends to take aim at it, despite having little investment in preserving the status quo. Alyson Escalante’s Gender Nihilism: An Anti-Manifesto, for example, complains that ‘trans politics has sought to try to broaden gender categories.’
Escalante seeks trans liberation, her point amounts to a mild criticism of the proliferation of genders incomparable to the attacks that come from outright transphobes. Still, the precise point being made here is not at all clear. Why not broaden categories if they are too narrow? And if the answer to this is that they were not too narrow, why would people want to broaden them in the first instance?
Gender as Art
We are often told to think of gender as a binary, that sex is straightforwardly male and female; we humans are broadly and mildly sexually dimorphic, but sex is not so pregiven as reductionists assume, and its relationship to gender certainly is not. The attempt to do away with gender, then, returns us in some form to that oppressive and too limited gender binary, only now disguised as some factual sex.
The idea of infinite genders acknowledges that how we relate to our embodied and social features will always be culturally negotiated. Moreover, much of what fits within that negotiation will remain meaningfully gendered even if it goes by another name, and maybe even if it takes place outside of an oppressive social context as gender abolitionists hope to achieve. (On this last point we can only speculate.)
What the infinite genders perspective does is rebel against the oppressive side of the equation and, in the spirit of so much queer politics, reclaim parts of it, the superficial signs of it, for liberatory ends. I am and probably always will be nonbinary. Both the vagueness and the connotations of that term work for me and I doubt I would take on a gender conceived by generations much younger than my own.
Xenogenders, for example, do not resonate with my experiences. But I can see how young people are engaged in their encounters with gender, their own rebellions, through such terminology. So much of identity is elliptical, concerning nuances of selfhood and world (and the wedding of both) that cannot be grasped directly and fully by language. Poetry, however, the use of metaphors and suggestive phrases, can help to bridge the communicative gaps.
In a piece I helped to write a long time ago for Anti*Capitalist Resistance, I came out against gender abolition as a project. I did so foremost because I am protective of the rebellious identities of trans, nonbinary and otherwise creatively gendered people. I am not, however, a gender preservationist; rebellion against gender in its current composition is good because it is a delimiting social institution predicated on the subjugation of women, as well as sexual and gender minorities.
It is a point on which to be clear, and I suspect a cause of confusion; defending the creative re-purposing of gender to liberatory ends is not defending the historic cage of gender inside of which so many have and still do suffer. That is, I believe this is where the friendlier hostility (the hostility that is not bigoted) comes about the idea of expanding genders potentially infinitely.
A long while ago I encountered a meme in which one person says ‘Abolish gender’ as another simultaneously says ‘Create more genders’. In the next panel they stare at each other angrily and in the third and final panel, the two kiss. It is a whimsical piece of trans meme culture, and expresses a wry truth.
If we truly abolish gender as a system of control and discipline, we will perhaps be left with a freer space, one in which all that was encompassed by gender (gender by any other name…) becomes a canvass on which we can paint ourselves, limited only by our ability to imagine ourselves in new ways. That means going beyond gender preservation or gender abolition, beyond even 56 genders.
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