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Communication in the Real World: Blog

Entries in identity (3)


Facebook's New Gender Options Help Users Better Communicate Their Identities

Facebook announced last week that it is finally expanding its options for gender identity. Martha Mendoza's story for the Associated Press notes:

"You don't have to be just male or female on Facebook anymore. The social media giant is adding a customizable option with about 50 different terms people can use to identify their gender as well as three preferred pronoun choices: him, her or them."

These expanded options are a relief, undoubtedly, to the Facebook users who don't fit into or resist the typical gender binary of male/female. While this development in the world of social media will allow people to better communicate and express their gender identities, it connects specifically to the transgender rights movement. to better understand the context behind this story, we must better understand how gender, communication, and identity intersect. The following is excerpted from the chapter on culture and communication in my book Communication in the Real World

"Is It A Boy Or A Girl?"

When we first meet a newborn baby, we often ask whether it’s a boy or a girl. This question illustrates the importance of gender in organizing our social lives and our interpersonal relationships.

A Canadian family became aware of the deep emotions people feel about gender and the great discomfort people feel when they can’t determine gender when they announced to the world that they were not going to tell anyone the gender of their baby, aside from the baby’s siblings. Their desire for their child, named Storm, to be able to experience early life without the boundaries and categories of gender brought criticism from many.[i]

Conversely, many parents consciously or unconsciously “code” their newborns in gendered ways based on our society’s associations of pink clothing and accessories with girls and blue with boys. While it’s obvious to most people that colors aren’t gendered, they take on new meaning when we assign gendered characteristics of masculinity and femininity to them. 

Social Construction of Gender

Just like race, gender is a socially constructed category. While it is true that there are biological differences between who we label male and female, the meaning our society places on those differences is what actually matters in our day-to-day lives. And the biological differences are interpreted differently around the world, which further shows that although we think gender is a natural, normal, stable way of classifying things, it is actually not. There is a long history of appreciation for people who cross gender lines in Native American and South Central Asian cultures, to name just two.

The Difference Between Gender and Sex

You may have noticed I use the word gender instead of sex. That’s because gender is an identity based on internalized cultural notions of masculinity and femininity that is constructed through communication and interaction. There are two important parts of this definition to unpack.

  • We internalize notions of gender based on socializing institutions, which helps us form our gender identity. 
  • We attempt to construct that gendered identity through our interactions with others, which is our gender expression. 

Sex is based on biological characteristics, including external genitalia, internal sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones.[ii] While the biological characteristics between men and women are obviously different, it’s the meaning that we create and attach to those characteristics that makes them significant.

The cultural differences in how that significance is ascribed are proof that “our way of doing things” is arbitrary. For example, cross-cultural research has found that boys and girls in most cultures show both aggressive and nurturing tendencies, but cultures vary in terms of how they encourage these characteristics between genders. In a group in Africa, young boys are responsible for taking care of babies and are encouraged to be nurturing.[iii]

Challenges to Gender Norms

There have been challenges to the construction of gender in recent decades. Since the 1960s, scholars and activists have challenged established notions of what it means to be a man or a woman.

The women’s rights movement in the United States dates back to the 1800s, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Although most women’s rights movements have been led by white, middle-class women, there was overlap between those involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery and the beginnings of the women’s rights movement.

Although some of the leaders of the early women’s rights movement had class and education privilege, they were still taking a risk by organizing and protesting. Black women were even more at risk, and Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave, faced those risks often and gave a much noted extemporaneous speech at a women’s rights gathering in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, which came to be called “A’int I a Woman?” Her speech highlighted the multiple layers of oppression faced by black women. You can watch actress Alfre Woodard deliver an interpretation of the speech here:


Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression do not match the gender they were assigned by birth. Transgender people may or may not seek medical intervention like surgery or hormone treatments to help match their physiology with their gender identity.

The term transgender includes other labels such as transsexualtransvestitecross-dresser, and intersex, among others. Terms like hermaphrodite and she-male are not considered appropriate.

As with other groups, it is best to allow someone to self-identify first and then honor their preferred label. If you are unsure of which pronouns to use when addressing someone, you can use gender-neutral language or you can use the pronoun that matches with how they are presenting. If someone has long hair, make-up, and a dress on, but you think their biological sex is male due to other cues, it would be polite to address them with female pronouns, since that is the gender identity they are expressing.

Facebook's move to allow users to express their gender identities outside the typical binary is commendable and will hopefully help us all be more competent communicators when it comes to gender. 

[i] Linsey Davis and Susan Donaldson James, “Canadian Mother Raising Her ‘Genderless’ Baby, Storm, Defends Her Family’s Decision,” ABC News, May 30, 2011, accessed October 12, 2011,

[ii] Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005), 19.

[iii] Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005), 51.


Timeline of Gay Rights Advances and Key Historical Events Related to Sexuality and Identity

As with other cultural identities that I discuss in Chapter 8 of my textbook Communication in the Real World, notions of sexuality have been socially constructed in different ways throughout human history.

Sexual orientation didn’t come into being as an identity category until the late 1800s. Before that, sexuality was viewed in more physical or spiritual senses that were largely separate from a person’s identity. The table below traces some of the developments relevant to sexuality, identity, and communication that show how this cultural identity has been constructed over the past 3,000 years.

This table is especially relevant given that the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments next week in two key cases related to gay rights. It's been ten years since the Court heard a significant case related to gay rights, so even though gay rights have been in the news in a lot of other areas, a case at this level is a rare occurrence. 



1400 BCE–565 BCE

During the Greek and Roman era, there was no conception of sexual orientation as an identity. However, sexual relationships between men were accepted for some members of society. Also at this time, Greek poet Sappho wrote about love between women.


Byzantine Emperor Justinian makes adultery and same-sex sexual acts punishable by death.


Civil law in England indicates the death penalty can be given for same-sex sexual acts between men.


Napoleonic Code in France removes all penalties for any sexual activity between consenting adults.


England removes death penalty for same-sex sexual acts.


The term heterosexuality was coined to refer a form of “sexual perversion” in which people engage in sexual acts for reasons other than reproduction.


Dr. Magnus Hirschfield founds the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin. It is the first gay rights organization.


Doctors “treat” homosexuality with castration, electro-shock therapy, and incarceration in mental hospitals.


The first gay rights organization in the United States, the Chicago Society for Human Rights, is founded.


Tens of thousands of gay men are sent to concentration camps under Nazi rule. The prisoners are forced to wear pink triangles on their uniforms. The pink triangle was later reclaimed as a symbol of gay rights.


The terms heterosexuality and homosexuality appear in Webster’s dictionary with generally the same meaning the terms hold today.


American sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s research reveals that more people than thought have engaged in same-sex sexual activity. His research highlights the existence of bisexuality.


On June 27, patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back as police raided the bar (a common practice used by police at the time to harass gay people). “The Stonewall Riots” as it came to be called was led by gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons of the bar, many of whom were working class and/or people of color.


The American Psychiatric Association removes its reference to homosexuality as a mental illness.


The Vermont Supreme Court rules that the state must provide legal rights to same-sex couples. In 2000, Vermont becomes the first state to offer same-sex couples civil unions.


The US Supreme Court rules that Texas’s sodomy law is unconstitutional, which effectively decriminalizes consensual same-sex relations.


The US military policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is repealed, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Adapted from Brenda J. Allen, Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2011), 117–25; and University of Denver Queer and Ally Commission, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer History,” Queer Ally Training Manual, 2008.


Race, Appearance, and Hollywood Casting: Who should play Nina Simone?

Nina Simone14

A story on NPR today discussed a recent controversy that is relevant to the concepts of race and identity.

After years of speculation, a bio-pic about the famous singer and activist Nina Simone is scheduled to come out relatively soon. Simone, who commented on and critiqued the ways in which darker skinned African Americans are marginalized and sang about her own dark skin, will be played by the lighter-skinned Zoe Saldana. People have criticized this choice, saying that a darker skinned actress should be cast in the lead role.

Questions to consider:

What message does casting a lighter-skinned actress in the role of Nina Simone send to audiences?

How does the tone and/or color of one's skin play into our perceptions of race? How does it play into stereotypes?