A question as ubiquitous as “male or female” is not always easy to answer. Junior Donnie Collins, a transgender man, is all too familiar with the difficulties of choosing a box to check.
“Whether it’s at the DMV, or applying to schools, or Facebook, there just tends to be not a lot of space for you to actually speak the truth about how you feel you identify,” said the visual and media arts major. “You more just have to pick what works best within the situation.”
But a recent change by Facebook could help usher in a new way for institutions to approach the complexities of gender. On Feb. 13, the social network behemoth added an option to choose from more than 50 new gender options—from trans to intersex to gender questioning. The change allows users in the United States to mix and match one or more of those options, and more easily switch between pronouns: him, her, or they.
“My first thought was—that’s awesome, I know so many people who are going to be thrilled about it,” said Collins, who joined Facebook after transitioning to become a male in 2011, and whose profile already reflects his correct gender identity.
Many institutions in the US—including, officially, Emerson—consider gender a binary choice, often rooted in anatomy; either you are a man or a woman. Fundamental pieces of identity in this country, from passports to credit cards, require people to choose one option. For many, this may be a simple decision. But for the 700,000 transgender Americans, according to a 2011 estimate by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, being required to check one box can be a difficult, even painful task.
Chloe Mulderig, a communication studies professor at Emerson and anthropologist at Boston University, said that Facebook’s new gender options represent a small but positive step.
“They are a marker of increasing social acceptance of alternative perspectives of gender in American society,” said Mulderig. “In that sense, it’s very exciting.”
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While changing your gender at Emerson isn’t exactly a click away, the college is known for having a progressive approach to gender. Emerson was recognized by the Princeton Review as the most friendly school to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community in 2013, and professors are encouraged to identify students using the gender they request, according to Mulderig.
Mulderig, who also teaches at BU, said the faculty and administration at Emerson are conscious of students’ varying gender identities.
“Emerson actually gives us less information. When I get my class list, I get told nothing about my students,” she said. “I get to know what major you are, but I’m not even told what gender you are.”
She acknowledged that not knowing a class’s gender balance can hinder planning for professors, particularly for courses she teaches like Gender in a Global Perspective, but said Emerson made the right decision by favoring students’ privacy and ability to choose their own identities.
“Emerson is actually relatively hands-off, lets students define who they are, and then rolls with that,” she said.
While this veiled approach to student information lets professors begin classes with a blank slate about their students’ identities, it can also end up causing uncomfortable situations for transgender students who are still in transition. They must either preemptively contact professors before the first day of class, or face being incorrectly identified in front of rooms full of their peers.
“Especially freshman year, I’d been in classes where I would have to show up early and tell them, otherwise the wrong name would be called,” said Collins, who does not give out his birth name. “Or the wrong name would be called and I would be silent. Or the wrong name would be called, and I would be like, eff it, that’s the deal. You just get so tired of professors repeatedly calling the wrong name if you don’t act quick enough.”
But he said his teachers have been understanding and accommodating after his conversations with them.
“They just went the extra mile to make me feel comfortable in class,” he said. “Every professor I’ve dealt with here, once I’ve told them what’s up, they’ve changed things, been very respectful.”
Mulderig confirmed that professors at Emerson are asked to be sensitive to students’ requests.
“As soon as a student lets us know, it’s our obligation to treat that student in the manner in which they want to be treated,” she said. “Students that want to be referred to by different names because of gender changes—that’s great, we call them by the names they want to be called.”
Behind the scenes, though, the college’s view is more rigid. Like many other institutions, Emerson’s internal systems, the databases that control core student data, treat gender as an either-or. By default, the college stores students’ genders based on how they identified themselves during the admission process. And currently, both of Emerson’s application providers, the Common Application and the Universal College Application, allow applicants to check only male or female, with no space provided for an explanation.
This structural rigidity means that students undergoing a gender transition while at Emerson must first go through the complex process of gaining government-sanctioned recognition.
Collins went through these steps in 2012, the summer after his freshman year. After filing a deluge of paperwork, scheduling a $150 appointment with his local probate court, and swearing that his change of name wasn’t to defraud the government, a judge signed a dozen orders confirming his new identity.
“It just involved me being on my game all the time. You can’t unanswer a letter, you have to pay the right amount, you have to follow up,” said Collins. “So it’s exhausting, and on my own, it was very tiring.”
He then brought one of those probate orders to Emerson, completed some forms, and requested a new ID card.
“Luckily, within Emerson, it was better,” he said. “The system was a little rusty—it was clear that people hadn’t been changing their names all the time—but everyone really, really wanted to help.”
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Facebook’s new gender options can only go so far in furthering a more complex view of identity. Mulderig said users must go beyond simply using the feature and advocate for its adoption in other facets of society for it to be truly successful.
“We can’t depend on the tool to cause social change,” said Mulderig. “We have to depend on people to use the tool to cause social change.”
Some Emerson students said they believed the college should take a step like Facebook’s, given its reputation for being LGBTQ-friendly. Currently, some bathrooms around campus are open to anyone to use, regardless of gender, for example, and students can apply to live on campus with peers of mixed genders.
“I think at Emerson especially, it should change,” said Claudia Frye, a freshman visual and media arts major. “We already have gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral housing.”
Until that happens, though, Collins emphasized that gender is just one component of his identity, which can’t be fully expressed by checking a single box.
“But if we’re going to have boxes,” he said, “then we’d better have some better boxes.”