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Taking a spin on Facebook’s gender wheel

Updated: March 20, 2014 6:24AM



‘Language is power,” the feminist British writer Angela Carter wrote, and it’s true. Words represent concepts that can shake our world. This week a new word certainly shook mine. I was noodling around Facebook, encountered a term I wasn’t familiar with, found the definition, then hurried downstairs, where my wife was in the kitchen baking banana chocolate chip muffins.

“I have an announcement!” I said, with well-practiced grandiosity. “One that I think will explain a lot that has gone on in our relationship over the years. I am coming out of the closet. I am . . . cisgendered. I am a proud cisgendered male.”

She paused, mixing bowl in the crook of her arm, wooden spoon in hand, looked at me, her face placid. Then returned to mixing. She was not taking the bait. OK, OK, I told her, Facebook now gives its billion members not just the choice of familiar “male” and “female” genders to identify themselves as, but 50, count ’em, 50 alternatives, many I had never heard of — “agender” and “pangender” and “non-binary” — but could at least roughly figure out.

Then there was “cisgender,” which made no sense at all, as it turned out. I checked the dictionary. Nothing. Then Wikipedia, which defines it as “where an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth.” In other words, someone who is born a boy, in possession of a penis and then cleaves to the realm of traditional maleness, such as it is.

“My God,” I thought, “that’s . . . that’s me.”

And let me tell you, it feels so good to get that out, to reveal my true self. Finally, a burden has been lifted. . . .

Sorry. I can’t even have momentary fun aping the victim envy that ignorant people indulge in. Can’t wink at the theater of coming out without recognizing the widespread human tragedy that makes it necessary. That is: It’s easy to be the norm. With our frisson over gay marriage, with religious conservatives hot to portray our country as some sinkhole of anything-goes depravity, the fact is, most people who stray off the narrow path of the ordinary — blue trucks for boys, pink ribbons for girls — step off a cliff into a realm of woe. The usual stuff that we straights expect — say, go to school without torture — is up in the air.

Homosexual men and lesbians have, after long struggle, finally established themselves being bona fide members of the human race, nearly, whose participation in regular human activities, such as getting married and raising families, should no longer be thwarted by the anxious sex-averse puritanical wasp’s nest that we call our society. Not everyone has gotten the message, however. Some still sit in the stands chanting for a fifth quarter, though the game is over and the rest of us are heading for the exits.

Now the question is whether the transgender world, those who identify themselves along a spectrum of mind-twisting complexity as reflected in Facebook’s 50 terms, will be able to piggyback on the success of gays and slip through the door into acceptability that gays have jammed their foot in.

The answer, at least based on Facebook’s action, seems to be a tentative yes. “Cisgender,” as far as I can tell, is a half-clever term cooked up so the opposite of “transgender” isn’t “normal.” And why not? The trans world is a far smaller sliver than the gay/lesbian world, and will no doubt feel the wrath of frustrated religious types looking for a group upon which to shower disapproval. We’ve already seen anti-bullying measures opposed on the insane grounds that kids being bullied are often transgender kids.

As with many subcultures, the trans world places much emphasis on fine distinctions. So I phoned the contact listed by GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, for “Transgender Media Inquiries” to make sure I’m not calling hellfire upon myself through some faux pas (noticing that they seem to violate their own guideline, “Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun.” In that case, wouldn’t “Transgender Media Inquiries” describe inquiries from the transgender media? Which I assume doesn’t need GLAAD to help navigate this ever-shifting labyrinth).

Back on Facebook, I tried to plug “Married” into gender — not technically a sex, true, but the term speaks to my condition. No go. Just as well. The idea that Facebook, a medium for showing off your dinner, your Caribbean rental and your kids, should suddenly grab at our collective crotch and demand we pick what team we’re batting for from a huge laundry list of proclivities — that seems a bridge too far. I struck the category from my page.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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