Today we revisit an episode from way back in season one, and ask: what even is gender in the first place? How could it be different? Why does science fiction like playing with gender? And what would happen if we removed it from our legal identities?
- Os Keyes, a PhD student at the University of Washington who studies gender, disability, and technology.
- Dr. Flora Renz, co-director of the Centre for Sexuality, Race and Gender Justice at Kent Law School.
- Tuck Woodstock, a professional gender detective and host of the podcast Gender Reveal.
- Dr. Oliver Haimson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.
- Blue Delliquanti, a contributor to the Flash Forward book and author of the forthcoming graphic novel Across A Field Of Starlight.
- Fairest, by Meredith Talusan
- Gender Studies Will Destroy (Save) the World!, by Dr. Laurie Essig
- Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
- Intersex Explained (101) by Hans
- Title IX: Who Determines the Legal Meaning of “Sex”?
- Exploring the Feminist Politics of Decertification
- Gender’s Wider Stakes: Lay Attitudes to Legal Gender Reform
- How New York repealed the ‘walking while trans’ law
- Arresting dress: A timeline of anti-cross-dressing laws in the United States
- Why police often single out trans people for violence
- The Misgendering Machines: Trans/HCI Implications of Automatic Gender Recognition
- Facial recognition software has a gender problem
- EU urged to ban ‘discriminatory’ AI tools that detect gender or sexuality
- How AI bots and voice assistants reinforce gender bias
- Meet Q, The Gender-Neutral Voice Assistant
- Speaking from Experience: Trans/Non-Binary Requirements for Voice-Activated AI
- Designing Trans Technology: Defining Challenges and Envisioning Community-Centered Solutions
- Tumblr was a trans technology: the meaning, importance, history, and future of trans technologies
- Tumblr will ban all adult content on December 17th
- Disproportionate Removals and Differing Content Moderation Experiences for Conservative, Transgender, and Black Social Media Users: Marginalization and Moderation Gray Areas
- TikTok admits restricting some LGBT hashtags
- The Left Hand of Darkness
- How gender essentialism warped our view of science
- Bird Note: Stories about the enduring connections between birds, people and landscapes.
- The World As You’ll Know It: Technology is at an inflection point. Can we harness it to make life better…or will it harness us? Join Kurt Andersen as he and a world-class selection of thinkers explore this question as it pertains to our brains, our personal lives, our laws and our government.
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Flash Forward is hosted by Rose Eveleth and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Mattie Lubchansky. The voices from the future this episode were provided by
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
(Transcripts provided by Emily White at The Wordary)
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S7E11 – “What Is The Future Of Gender?”
[Flash Forward intro music – “Whispering Through” by Asura, an electronic, rhythm-heavy piece]
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode, we take on a specific possible, or sometimes not-so-possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip into the future to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might actually go down. Got it? Great! Oh, and this episode does have some cursing in it. Just so you know.
This episode we’re starting in the year 2086.
FICTION SKETCH BEGINS
[ambient sounds of a classroom filled with young children]
There was a time not so long ago when our world was more rigid.
“In courtship, men are supposed to be in the active, and women in the passive voice.” — London Journal, 1875.
People separated themselves into groups. Men and women; boys and girls.
“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy. While blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” — Ladies Home Journal, 1918.
And with those groups came rules. Lots of rules. Boys wore suits and jeans and kept their hair short. Girls wore pink, and dresses, and makeup. The two should not – could not – mix.
“Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers. The person who came up with the expression, ‘the weaker sex’, was either very naïve or had to be kidding.” — President Donald Trump, 1997.
“Not only do men and women communicate differently, but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently. They almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment.” — John Gray, 2002
There was a time when these rules dictated every piece of a person’s life.
I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s how relationships work.
Today we view these rigid categories as antiquated. But for the next hour, we’ll travel back to a world where the desire to group humans by gender ran so deep, it was even included on their passports.
FICTION SKETCH END
Okay, so today we’re actually revisiting a very old episode of Flash Forward. Way back in 2015, in season one, I did an episode called Bye Bye Binary, about the future of gender. And in the six years since that episode aired, I think that both my feelings about gender, personally and big-picture philosophically, and the broader cultural conversation about gender, have both changed a fair amount.
As many of you know, episodes in season one were much shorter than they are now, just a snippet of some ideas, one or two interviews, that’s it. And so I thought it was time to crack this episode back open and see what we might do differently with this idea today. Plus, this is the topic of a chapter in the Flash Forward book, so it’s a great way for me to remind you that you can and should purchase the book, or get it from the library, or borrow it from a friend, and check it out!
The first thing I did was go back and listen to the season one episode. And I did so with great trepidation because I try not to listen to season one episodes because I am afraid that they will be really bad. Anytime someone tells me that they have heard of the show and they’re starting from the beginning, I die a little bit inside because I think the show has gotten a lot better.
And the first thing I noticed is that in this episode, released in 2015, I apparently thought it would be funny, I guess, to put a reference to a fictional President Donald Trump. I did genuinely have to stop listening, and check the date, and then relisten again to be sure that I in fact did, apparently, predict that Donald Trump would become president. And I’m not proud of that.
Anyway, once I got over that, I got to the premise of that original episode, which was that in the future, what if gender was more like hair color? Something that you can change pretty easily, that people might notice, but that doesn’t have a huge impact on your life? On that episode, we talked to three people: Ann Leckie, science fiction author of books like Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy; Meredith Talusan, who at the time was an LGBT staff writer at BuzzFeed and who has since published a memoir called Fairest which is about, among other things, gender; and Dr. Laurie Essig, the Director of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies at Middlebury College.
But before we fully dive into this gender revisit episode, it’s probably worth doing a really quick 101, definitional segment, okay? So, number one: What is gender?
Fuck. That is both the reaction to the question and also an answer. Gender is a fuck.
This is Os Keyes.
I’m a PhD student at the University of Washington in the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering. And to answer your next question, I don’t know what that means either and nobody in the department has been able to explain it to me.
I don’t have a definition of gender. In fact, I spent a good three years trying to work out what my definition of gender was. And in the end, I’ve come down on, like… you know, people make fun of… I forget the judge, but there’s that case where it’s like, “I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”
I’ve come to conclude that that judge might be the only smart person on the planet, because that’s also the approach I’ve ended up taking to gender. And the reason for that is that gender isn’t anything, and yet it is simultaneously everything. It’s like something that oscillates in and out of view and takes different forms, like depending on who you’re talking to, on where you are, on when you are, on what you’re talking about. What gender is and what aspects of it are relevant vary.
Sometimes what’s relevant is questions of power. Sometimes what’s relevant is questions of, like, internal sense. Sometimes what’s relevant is questions of, like, how someone dresses and appears. And the answers to… like, the categories available to each of those hows are going to vary in place and in time. So I’ve just settled on, “I don’t know what gender is, but I know it when I see it.”
And in fact, gender is so hard to define that often the law simply… does not actually define it.
DR. FLORA RENZ:
Mostly, law just says “Gender is what we say it is. What’s on your birth certificate is your gender and we can’t define it beyond this.” So, when we talk about equality laws, anti-discrimination clauses, they just say “Sex is defined as being men and women. And what those things mean, we can’t really explain it. We wouldn’t want to explain in this piece of law.”
This is Dr. Flora Renz, the co-director of the Centre for Sexuality, Race and Gender Justice at Kent Law School.
Even a professional gender detective is still seeking an understanding of what gender even is.
The whole show is about me changing my mind about gender. That’s, like, the unspoken premise… Actually, it’s not the unspoken. The explicit premise of the show is me getting a little bit closer every episode to understanding what gender is.
This is Tuck Woodstock, the host of the podcast Gender Reveal.
Something that I’ve found is that the longer I do this podcast, the harder it is for me to do my other work, which is teaching gender 101 classes to cis people, because everything has so much nuance and there’s simply not time or space in a two-hour lecture to get into the nuance of, like, “If we’re going to say that biological sex and gender are different, in what ways are they actually different and are they interconnected in some way? And if we’re going to say that gender and sexual orientation are different, which they are, in what ways are they different, and in what ways are they actually influencing each other?”
You can’t get that far into the weeds in your first two-hour lecture, but you can get that far into the weeds in 100-something episodes of a podcast. So, my conversations about gender with cis people almost contradict the conversations that I’m having with trans people on the podcast.
So you should definitely go check out Gender Reveal if you want to really deep dive into understanding gender, but the point of this is that gender is really hard to define. It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to pin down. But a few other words that we’re going to use on this episode, for the purpose of simplicity are these:
‘Cis’ means that you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth.
‘Trans’ means that you do not identify as the gender you were assigned at birth.
‘Sex’ is a word that is often used to describe biological traits. But it’s worth noting that humans have a whole lot more sexual diversity than you might realize. Some people have XX chromosomes and develop breasts and a vagina. Other people have XY chromosomes and develop a penis. But there are also a ton of combinations of those things – people with XXY chromosomes or just one X, or who have XX or XY but anatomy that doesn’t match what is traditionally expected from those chromosomes.
So, sex and gender are often used as synonyms but they are not the same thing. Sex is generally constrained by specific biological conditions. Gender, for many people, is impacted by those biological conditions but it’s not defined by them.
I don’t know. You know, gender’s fake, the whole thing’s fake, and I’m kind of tired of pretending that it’s not fake. Like, I don’t want to deal with it. I certainly don’t want it… I really, really don’t want it involved in any sort of, like, legal or bureaucratic form. I think it’s perfectly fine to have it as a personality trait the same way that, like, I’m a Sagittarius or whatever. But like, I don’t have to tell the IRS and Social Security and the DMV that I’m a Sagittarius.
So, setting aside “what the hell gender even is,” let’s start there. Why is your gender on so many forms? Why does the government even need to know your gender? If you are a cis person, you might not realize just how stressful having mandatory, often binary, gender markers on your passport, your driver’s license, your web profiles, all of that stuff, can be. Or how much this can impact someone’s living conditions.
Often it’s in places where you have to interact with the state a lot, so it affects particularly vulnerable people more as well as people on lower incomes. Working-class people often have more interactions with the state and therefore it matters more. So, whether or not social housing is overcrowded is defined by whether you have children of the opposite gender sharing a room over the age of 10. So, there it really matters, for instance, what space you have access to, what kind of quality of housing you live in. There, suddenly your legal status really, really matters.
That’s Dr. Flora Renz again, and one of the projects Flora works on is called the Future of Legal Gender.
So, it’s quite interesting because law didn’t really have to deal much with what gender is. Often law just talked about women or about men, in some instances, often around property law. But it never had to explain what it means by those terms until we start to have trans people say, “What about us? What if I change my gender? Does the law recognize that?”
Beginning in the 1970s, there were a series of cases about whether or not trans people could be legally married.
And the law often said, “No, you can’t because you are effectively a same-sex couple and we don’t recognize same-sex marriage. So you cannot be married even though you say to us you’re an opposite-sex couple.”
Eventually, the laws in the UK shifted to allow a trans person to legally change their gender. And as of the 2000s, many lawmakers in the UK have been advocating for policies to be drafted in a gender neutral way, such that they apply to everybody equally, no matter their gender.
Today, there is an increasing understanding that not everybody fits into the gender binary. Not everybody can check ‘M’ or ‘F’ on a document. And there are now states and countries around the world adding a third gender marker to people’s documents to try and address this issue.
People who say, “I’m not male, I’m not female. I want that recognized by the state, so I need a third marker option.” But actually, when you talk to people who work on legal issues, they say it’s much more complicated adding a third option than it is just to remove all options.
And the question that the Future of Legal Gender project is asking is, “Why does gender need to be on anybody’s paperwork at all?”
We’re looking at the question of what would happen if people no longer had a formal legal gender that’s assigned to them by the state, what we’re calling decertification; the removal of a formal certification of your gender.
The project did a big survey asking people their thoughts about gender and legal documents. They also interviewed experts in the legal field, looking at whether taking gender out of someone’s legal personhood would disrupt anything. And what they found is that there are a lot of strong arguments for getting rid of gender as a legally defined category on people’s state-issued forms.
Basically, removing all categories could be, sort of, just to resolve the entire issue, cutting through the knot in the legal system there. But it might be something that takes a long time to happen. So we think this might be a candidate for what we call slow law reform, something that happens gradually in small steps over time. It gets removed more and more in different places, which is already happening. And eventually, it becomes irrelevant that we just remove it because it doesn’t matter at all anymore.
Now, the main question that comes up here is, what about discrimination? We still live in a patriarchal world where people are discriminated against based on their gender. If you remove gender from these documents, how does someone who has been the victim of discrimination have recourse? And Flora says it’s a good question.
What would anti-discrimination law look like if it isn’t based on a formal status? And in lots of cases, the answer seems to be that, actually, we can still do exactly the same thing we’ve been doing now. It wouldn’t even require a major legal change because, right now, if you bring a discrimination case, you say, “I’m being treated badly because I’m a woman,” nobody asks you to prove that you’re a woman. You don’t have to bring your birth certificate to the tribunal where you’re suing your employer for discrimination.
In other words, removing legal gender from your documents wouldn’t actually change much at all when it comes to these cases. Think about other forms of discrimination, for example. We have laws against discrimination based on race, or religion, or sexuality. But none of those things are on your birth certificate and you don’t have to, like, apply with the government to change your religion, for example. And removing gender from people’s legal personhood could help prevent trans people from being harassed and discriminated against in situations where their presentation doesn’t match up with what people are expecting based on the gender marker on their ID.
In many areas of the world, it is just straight-up illegal to be gay or trans. We know this. But in many areas of the United States, like until very, very recently, New York City, it was legal to profile someone as a sex worker if they appeared to be trans. And you know, up until relatively recently in history in the United States, it was legal to throw someone in jail for crossdressing. Like, if you think back to Stonewall, which was really not that long ago… like I’ve talked to people who were there, it was in our lifetimes. And so, you know, still today there are loads of people who are profiled in various ways for presenting as the gender that they are and even criminalized for being the gender that they are.
In my personal opinion, removing gender from legal, bureaucratic systems seems like an unequivocally good idea. In fact, removing mandatory gender declaration from pretty much everything seems like a good idea. Including removing it from technology.
It’s like every time we have a concept and a concept that matters, people are like, “You know what we could do with that? We could build a tool that detects it.”
That’s Os Keyes again, and when we come back we’re going to talk about all of the ways that technology tries to detect and taxonomize gender.
You know, the most prominent is definitely facial recognition. There’s also voice recognition. There is – and this is my personal favorite – gait recognition. Like, from the way that you walk, an algorithm will tell you what your gender is, which is hilarious to me because that means that my gender is “My left knee is fucked up.”
But first, a quick break.
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So, I get a lot of press releases about technology. New software, hardware, AI systems, vaporware, all kinds of stuff. And for a while, one of the big trends in these press releases was systems claiming to be able to use AI to detect someone’s gender.
Some people talk about, like, “Oh, we can use it for marketing. Imagine having billboards that can automatically adjust and tailor to their audience.” Some people talk about using it for, basically, bathroom policing. I would love it if this was an out-there example. But ‘some people’ includes the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who put out a report that was explicitly like, “Also, you could stick cameras in the entrance to people’s bathrooms. And by people, we mean women. And if anyone comes in who it decides isn’t a woman, it calls the cops.”
Other times, people argue that using AI to detect gender could help facial recognition systems run faster. So, let’s say you have one of these systems and you want to test a photo of a man against that system. If the database has millions of photos, it takes a while to go through them.
And some bright spark realized that if you could detect someone’s gender, which, officially, according to these systems, is a two-category system, then suddenly you can filter out half of the existing pictures and speed up your system. Great.
The problem is that gender is… not even definable by people. It’s definitely not a binary and it’s not something that an AI can actually detect. AI might be able to detect sex, but even that’s not a given.
What it’s measuring is, essentially, aesthetic. It’s measuring, a lot of the time, bone structure and “does the person have facial hair or not?” And setting aside for a second the many racialized as well as gendered aspects of using those as the heuristics, saying gender just lives in that place, just lives in facial structure, is to ignore, as I said, the vast complexity of what gender is and how the answer to that is going to vary depending on, like, who’s asking the question, who’s answering the question, and in what circumstance.
And look, I don’t know what gender is, but I’m pretty sure it is not the bone structure of your face. Now, some people might hear this and say, “Okay, well the issue is simply that the AI should be made better and smarter. The AI should be trained on a broader sense of gender, a wider set of choices.” But Os says that this isn’t a data quality issue, it’s not something a genius programmer could fix.
Adding more categories or changing the heuristics to categories in this, sort of, brute force way only makes sense if what you’re studying is stable enough that at some point you’ll almost be, like, done. Like, “We’ve reached the end of gender. We have all the categories we need and we have all of the little rules of how to select people into each category that we’ll possibly need.” And unfortunately for, like, the computer scientists, and fortunately for literally everyone else, gender doesn’t work like that. It is a complex social phenomenon. And so, sure, you could try adding more categories and more data, but you’ll, one, forever be playing catch up and, two, doing so in a way that is constantly grinding the people who don’t quite fit under the wheels of the machine.
The problem isn’t the coding, or the AI, or the data. It is the task itself.
So a model of, like, “What if we identify gender by looking at people’s facial structure,” and that’s it, that’s the whole model, is sort of like asking the question, “What does the taste of blue smell like?” Your question does not make sense. That you do not see that your question does not make sense is its own problem.
And the failure of these systems aren’t just, like, little oopsies that happen in a vacuum. An algorithmic system detecting your gender incorrectly can cause all kinds of problems for people. There are plenty of stories of people being harassed at airports, for example, because their presentation doesn’t match up with what the body scanner is looking for.
If something can never work, doesn’t have to exist, and is hurting people in its not working, we might as well stop developing it. Like, if attempts to make a perpetual motion machine irradiated the northern hemisphere every time they misfired, at a certain point you’d unplug the machine.
Honestly, I think it’s really easy to argue against AI that tries to guess gender and even AI that tries to guess sex. But there are other ways that technology interfaces with gender that are slightly more complicated.
Take voice assistants, for example. You have probably had some interaction with Siri or Alexa, and especially when these voice assistants first came out, there were a lot of conversations about their gender. Both come with default voices that are higher-pitched, that sound to many people like women, and people pointed out that there is a dynamic of servitude at play here. And so a few years ago, a group of designers created something called Q.
And essentially what they did is they collected the voice recordings of a load of people from a lot of different genders and then blended them together until they hit a voice that was equally confusing to everyone. And this they declared to be gender neutral is “everyone’s confused.”
Here is what Q sounds like:
[clip of Q: Hi, I’m Q, the world’s first genderless voice assistant. I’m created for a future where we are no longer defined by gender.]
In the press, Q was hailed as this great option to show the diversity of gender. But it left Os wondering… is this really the tech innovation that trans and nonbinary people need? So they did a study interviewing trans people about how they felt about Q, and what they might actually want from tech companies. And what they found was that a lot of the people they talked to… didn’t really care that much about having a gender neutral voice AI (whatever that means). What they cared about was whether that AI was putting them at risk.
Did the voice assistant just obliviously point me towards, like, a place that doesn’t have any bathrooms I can use? Or a place that is viciously bigoted?
Most of these participants also worried about surveillance. Who cares if the voice assistant is ungendered if it’s still sucking up all your data in the service of someone else getting very rich?
So, you know, it’s sort of like asking, you know, “What color would you like the dog shit you have for lunch today?” The correct answer is, “I would like to not eat dog shit for lunch.” And people trying to produce a wider range of dog shit colors are perhaps missing the point.
When asked what they did want from technology, participants talked a lot more about the functionality than the voice. For example, one participant said that it would be nice if AI assistants actually understood context and community terms so if they ask to be directed to a place to buy a binder, they are not directed to an office supply store.
Now, there is a tension here, right? Because in order for the system to know which kind of binder someone is talking about – the office supply or the clothing item – it has to know about them and about their gender identity, which can be information that you might not want to give to Amazon or Facebook, or whatever future giant corporation that exists, for all kinds of reasons. So how do you balance not wanting to increase the surveillance from these mega-corporations, while also wanting more accurate AI assistant answers?
Oh, I totally agree. And for anyone listening who does applied machine learning stuff, here’s a paper that I’ve been looking for a collaborator on for ages.
So, most tech companies use a centralized system for processing data from an AI assistant. So when you say ‘hey Siri’, and ask a question, Siri is talking to a more central hub and then sending an answer back to your phone, the processing is not happening locally.
And my question would be: Why can’t we design it almost to be more like, you know, system dictionaries and spell checks? Like, we have these devices which we are constantly told have, like, unsurpassed computing power, and like “you could fire off 12 Apollo rockets with an iPhone 5” or whatever. And so, my question is: Why can’t we design systems to learn locally so your system can learn that this is what you mean by binders and get it right the next time?
Now, it’s not realistic to think that your phone could locally know every single thing in the universe. But for stuff about you, your local area, about things you care about, it could have a library.
Why not design these systems to learn locally? They don’t have to stream stuff back to the central service and servers for reincorporation. They could just adapt locally. We have all this computing power. Why can’t we make it happen?
So if you are listening and want to work with Os on that project, you can find their information in the show notes!
And in fact, ideas for how to use technology to actually support trans people are not in short supply. Technologists just have to, you know, ask actual trans people about them.
DR. OLIVER HAIMSON:
One big area of my current and future research is about understanding what is trans technology and what kind of technology can we design to help address some of the challenges that trans people and communities face. And so as part of that work, we’ve done some participatory design where we bring, you know, a group of trans people into a room and we, you know, do design activities, and sketching, and brainstorming, and all this.
This is Dr. Oliver Haimson, an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. One participant requested a body changing machine, where you can go in and basically customize your body like a video game avatar and have those changes made quickly and easily, without extensive, painful, and risky surgeries. We’re still a long way away from that, but other ideas that came up are a lot more doable.
So, clothing that can shift based on your gender presentation. A lot of people… you know, let’s say you leave the house and you feel like your gender presentation is one way, but then an hour later, you want to switch things up. Like, having shifting clothing that actually can adjust based on how you’re feeling in the moment.
Oliver studies the ways in which trans people specifically interact with social technologies.
There are plenty of things that are, you know, similar to how other people use online communities to find support when they’re going through, you know, transitions in their lives, basically. But I think some unique things have to do with the fact that during gender transition, people’s… often, their name changes, often their physical appearance changes, and often also at the same time their network of people that they’re connected to changes. And so you have these three things that are happening all at the same time, and that’s kind of unique. There aren’t a lot of life transitions where you have that level of change all happening at once. I think that it makes, kind of, traditional online experiences quite difficult.
Oliver’s work looks at how trans folks use different social media platforms in distinct ways. In the 2010s for example, Tumblr was a hub for people connecting online and talking about transition. A lot of those people shared aspects of their identity on Tumblr that they didn’t feel comfortable disclosing on, say, Facebook.
It was really this case where people could actually present multiple identities at the same time across different social media sites, which I think is kind of unique. Like, that’s not something you could do as easily before social media.
And there were a couple of reasons why Tumblr was the place to be. It was a place where you were more likely to talk to people you didn’t know in real life, who didn’t necessarily know what you looked like. And obviously, there was a question of critical mass – you go where the other people are who you want to talk to. But there were also design elements to Tumblr that made it more trans friendly.
It’s things like the profile doesn’t have, like, set boxes that tell you that you have to, you know, answer particular questions in certain ways. You can really choose to identify yourself however you want to. It doesn’t force you to use a real name like other sites do. And you can, kind of, choose to be anonymous, pseudonymous. You can use your real name if you want to. But there’s really just a lot of freedom there and it gives people this flexibility that is really helpful when you’re in this time of transition in your life and you’re, you know, trying things out and need to be able to be very flexible in your identity presentation.
But in 2018, Tumblr changed its policies in ways that wound up pushing a lot of trans communities off the site. And this is another thing that Oliver has studied, the ways in which trans people’s profiles and content are disproportionately removed by content moderators.
You know, sites have policies where, like, nudity is not allowed in certain contexts, but often they will misclassify trans people. So you could have an example of, like, a trans man who had top surgery… Actually, regardless of whether or not that person had top surgery. Someone who is a man could have nipples that are classified as female and then that content is removed. So, that’s just one example. Other types of content that tend to be taken down are things like specifically talking about being trans or being queer.
There are a lot of reasons why these takedowns are happening. Some of it is reporting, where someone who doesn’t like a piece of content can report it as inappropriate even if it’s maybe not. Other times it’s an algorithm searching for keywords or specific kinds of images. And Oliver has some advice for tech companies dealing with moderation.
One important thing would be understanding the context more. One example would be trans content that someone posts in, let’s say, a private or secret Facebook group that’s specifically for trans communities is usually very different than what they would post on their timeline.
For example, in a private, invite-only Facebook group, people might talk about specific surgeries and include detailed information about those surgeries. If it gets flagged for moderation, it often gets removed from that specific context.
Maybe it gets removed because the general, you know, average Facebook user would not want to view that content. But it’s okay if it’s in, like, a private Facebook group where that’s the purpose of the group. I don’t want to say I’m advocating for it being removed in certain contexts; it’s just understanding when something is a norm of a community and should be okay somewhere, I think really matters when deciding whether something should be removed or not.
For a lot of people going through some kind of gender journey, finding other people online can be a huge piece of the puzzle. And this is actually one of the reasons I wanted to revisit this episode now-ish, aside from it being in the book, because one thing I’ve noticed a lot is the ways in which TikTok plus quarantine has shifted my own and, seemingly, a lot of other people’s ideas about gender.
Yeah, it’s for sure true. Something that I didn’t recall that someone recently told me was that in March of 2020 on the podcast, I said, “I hope this affords everyone a lot of time to sit quietly and think about their gender.” So, I did call it. Congrats to me.
But yeah, all of the time. Like, I’ve started asking everyone that in interviews. So, of the people I’ve talked to who are on a gender journey, or have started a gender journey recently, or have come out as trans recently, pretty much all of them have cited the pandemic as informing their thoughts on gender. And even cis people who hadn’t previously thought about gender very much, many of them will say that they thought about what elements of their gender they were simply performing for coworkers, friends and family, once they no longer had to perform them. And so that has been a huge running theme.
I know that this is absolutely a selection bias and this is how the algorithm works, it feeds you things that it thinks you like, but a lot of the TikToks I get on my page are about gender and specifically about not really knowing what it is and not knowing how to relate to it. For fun, here are some of my favorite TikTok audios that people play with:
[“People perceive me as woman, and that’s… that’s fine. But also, a lot of the time it’s like, ‘Heh, gotcha!’”]
[“For me, gender has always felt like a job. Like, I said I could do womanhood on my resume, but I lied.”]
[“Gender implies the existence of gendest. Like, the person who has the most gender of everybody, we call them the gendest. And that person would obviously be not me. I might have some gender in the closet but I haven’t been able to find it recently.”]
[“If you call me she/her, I’m going to feel slightly, just mildly uncomfortable. But I don’t know what that means. I don’t want to look into it! Stop asking me!”]
[“I go by Bug. You may refer to me as a bug. I’m just what I am.”]
And this is something that, personally, I have definitely felt. I don’t really like thinking about gender because I would simply prefer to not have one. I feel about gender the way I feel about calculus. I guess it’s useful for some people but it is not something that I have any interest in doing?
There is sort of an irony here because science fiction and thinking about the future, in theory, offers up endless ways for me to imagine future genders and come up with, like, cool, creative things I would want for myself. But I just… I have no thoughts about that. I would love to care about or feel connected to gender as a concept. It seems like that could be really fun! But I sort of feel like it’s like poking a scab, where you can’t actually feel the poke, just the pressure around it? Or when you’ve got local anesthesia and you know people are doing something to you but you can’t actually feel it? That’s how I feel about gender.
Okay, that is enough of my own gender feelings. Let’s go to an ad break, shall we?
So, we have talked about law. We have talked about tech. Now let’s talk more about the future. Science fiction has, I think, a really interesting relationship with gender because some sci-fi authors just, kind of, ignore it, or assume that gender will be exactly the same as it is now a thousand years from out in deep space. In other cases, sci-fi authors play with gender as an indicator that things are very different in this world. Because if gender, this really thorny, and emotionally fraught, and pervasive thing is different in the future, then everything must be different, right?
Ursula K. Le Guin famously played with pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness, referring to every character as ‘he’. Interestingly, she did later write about how she wasn’t totally happy with that choice in hindsight. And one thing I think is interesting is that if you know about The Left Hand of Darkness, chances are you have heard about this pronoun thing. It’s one of the main things that people talk about when they talk about the book. But it’s not a huge plot point. There’s a ton of other stuff that happens in the book. And yet, the pronoun stuff is what comes up over, and over, and over again.
And this actually happened to Ann Leckie too. Here’s what she said when I interviewed her for the show back in 2015.
I had assumed from the get-go, and I had been told this by people who I knew, that the unconventional pronoun use would make the book more or less unsaleable. And I decided to go ahead anyway because, why am I spending all this time writing if I’m not writing what I want? And so, on the one hand, it didn’t surprise me that that was very attention-getting.
On the other hand, it’s not really a central part of the book. It’s a little piece of worldbuilding. It’s a little bit of character. And it does kind of astonish me the number of people who… they talk about the book as though that’s all that it’s about. Although I also must admit, many of the people who talk about it as though that’s all that’s about haven’t actually read the book. Most of the people who have read the book then go on to say, “Well, it also does all these other things, but boy, you can’t miss this gender thing.” And so, I feel kind of ambivalent about that, like I said, because on the one hand I totally understand why it gets so much attention. On the other hand, it’s not really a central feature of the book.
Ancillary Justice has war, and politics, and intrigue, and spaceships, and so much going on. And yet, a lot of the reviews seemed to be really fixated on the pronouns that she used. But pronouns do not a gender make. And in fact, there are some mediums in which you kind of get to avoid them altogether if you want to.
Comics are especially suited towards talking about changes in how we think about gender, how we think about people who either socially or medically transition, because pronouns are optional. When you think about prose and writing about things in prose, it’s impossible to avoid pronouns for the most part. And they, subtly or not, inform how we are perceiving these characters or these people we can’t see. With comics, it’s the opposite. We are seeing these people as they are and there’s no voice that is, like, in the way that is telling us what to think these people look like.
This is Blue Delliquanti, a comic artist who contributed a chapter to the Flash Forward book! Blue is also the creator of a comic called O Human Star and has a bunch of other work that you can check out on their website. And when we were working on the comic, one thing that actually came up was this question of how to show the reader that gender in this world was different than what they know today without having some character go on a long and awkward expository monologue.
And there’s so much informational density that you can get from comics that will tell a lot about the world without being overt about it, by just showing something happening, showing what, you know, a place looks like; a city, a party, a house with a young child. And all of that information can be jammed into an image instead of having it be described in extensive and often stilted detail, as you’ve pointed out.
In the comic, which again, you can read in the Flash Forward book, the two characters are re-entering each other’s lives after having drifted apart.
So I ended up coming up with a story about a, like, expectant parent who has, like, one of their best friends coming back into their life and they’re trying to figure out their situation. It’s kind of like a romance, like, plot that wouldn’t be out of place in more mainstream, like a cis or straight story. In fact, you see it all the time, but it’s informed by this premise that is very science fiction.
And the really fun part of that collaboration was I really wanted to feel like he was informing the world of the work as well. And he’s Tunisian, so we had a back-and-forth about, like, what would a Tunisian family… what would they be eating for dinner? What would the family structure be? What would their living quarters be like? And having seen what he contributed in a way that, like… that was a step beyond what I was able to research and prepare. It was really exciting. It was like a fun surprise. So, that was my favorite part of that collaboration.
So, what is the ideal future of gender? This is actually a question that Tuck Woodstock asks every guest on Gender Reveal.
“In your ideal world, what would the future of gender look like?”
I always look forward to the answer to this question every episode on Gender Reveal, for probably obvious reasons. And Tuck says there are some common themes that tend to come up over and over again.
Everyone gets to do whatever they want. Systemic barriers have been broken down. Nobody is treated as lesser than or oppressed in any way because of their gender. But there’s also splits between people who want gender to not exist and people who want gender to exist but with more freedom to move between and among genders.
Mostly the ones that stick with me are just really fun. Like, Maddy Court was like “fun and hot,” and that’s the whole thing. And I was like, “Hell, yeah. That’s what I want to: fun and hot.” And then Tre’vell Anderson was like, “It is a gumbo. Let me walk you through what gumbo is and how it translates to this.” And it was just this elaborate, like, soup metaphor and I really appreciated that.
Justin McElroy, a cis person, was like “You tell me,” because he, like, didn’t even want to fucking weigh in. And I was like, “That is the right answer.” The right answer is: you mind your own business and we’re going to figure it out.
One of my favorite answers to this question was in the recent interview with the author Carmen Maria Machado.
… who spent kind of the entire episode low-key explaining that she didn’t know what her gender was and she was on a gender journey. So then, her ideal future of gender was if her body could just tell her what her gender was so that she intellectually didn’t have to figure it out because her body would just, like, flash a colored light that would indicate her gender.
Personally, I would very much like this also. I would like the colored light, like the Sims or something, to just… tell me!
I mean, the secret is that there’s no answer and you just get to pick what you’re vibing with at any given moment. Like, it’s not a math equation; there isn’t, like, a pH test but for gender, you know? You’re just like, “I don’t know… This one today,” and that’s it, that’s how it goes. But that’s hard. It’s hard to have total free will and choice.
So in the spirit of Gender Reveal, I asked all of our guests this same question: In your ideal world, what would the future of gender look like?
My ideal future of gender is a future in which my answer to that question doesn’t apply to… isn’t taken to have normative weight. Like, it’s not intended to apply to, like, “This is what other people should be doing,” or anything else. It’s just, like, this is my answer for me and my answer for me involves a metric shit-ton of, like, Greg Bear-level biohacking.
I think it would be really interesting to see what happens around the link between gender and embodiment in the future, because if we don’t gender people so much at the start, then maybe what bodies look like matters less. We would maybe see less pushes to what is, kind of, the extremes of femininity or masculinity or the, kind of, clear delineation of one of those two things looks like. I think that would be amazing and beautiful.
It would be very nice if you were able to access some of the things that we propose in the comic. Like, if you wish to transition medically, you could do so. If you wanted to, you know, go through with a pregnancy, or shape the kind of family and extended family relationships that you wanted. That would be great because those are things that are difficult or inaccessible in the present day.
That said, that’s not the kind of gender transition that is desired or necessary for everybody. And I think being able to have both, kind of, ends of that spectrum as socially accepted and embraced possibilities will be healthy for everyone. And I think it will benefit the way we see gender as a whole and lead it to a really, you know, progressive kind of take on gender.
I think, most of the time when I answer this question, I think about a more long-term utopian vision of, like, gender doesn’t exist on any bureaucratic or legal forms, and we can all do anything we want without fear that our health insurance won’t cover it, or we’ll lose our jobs, or we’ll lose our housing, or our families will kick us out, which are all very real concerns that I would like to see fixed.
But I think in the short term, I actually think it would be ideal if cis people would just chill. As a gender educator, I am constantly talking to cis people who are like, “I have never met a trans person, and I don’t know what to do if I do meet one, and I don’t know what their needs are, and I don’t know what words to use for them, and I don’t know how to treat them, and I don’t…” And they’re just… They think that trans people are aliens.
And I just think that my ideal short-term future is that cis people stop treating me like an alien and just let me live. And then we can focus on the long-term future of, like, can trans people have jobs and health insurance, and can we get stuff removed from legal documents, and restructure the way we think of society? But short term, just chill out. I’m just a human being. Don’t worry about whether I or anyone am a boy, or a girl, or whatever. I’m hot and that’s what matters. And let’s just focus on that.
I think that, probably, there is no one perfect future of gender. In our first episode, we posited gender as being like hair color; something that you could play with easily, that people noticed, but that didn’t make or break your social interactions, family dynamics, relationships, support systems, etc., etc., etc. And I still think that’s actually kind of a good one. But in the five years since that episode, I’ve come to believe that my personal, ideal future of gender is that it’s something that is opt-in, not opt-out.
On this show, we talk a lot about building better futures, and often we talk about how to resist or push on technologies or science to encourage them to be better and do better. And often, I wind up including some kind of caveat that, yes, you’re not Jeff Bezos, you don’t have a billion dollars, you probably don’t run a huge technology company, but you can do this or that. But in this case, on this episode, you can really easily materially change the future of gender. You can examine your own gender feelings, especially if it’s something you’ve never really thought about. You can support the people in your life who are trying to figure out their own gender feelings. You can push back on laws that might hurt trans people. This is all around you, and you can genuinely do stuff, right now, today, to change how you think about and interact with this concept.
And this is honestly, like, the interpretation I’ve always had of “the future is now.” Our present was someone else’s future. By extension, that means that what we do now matters, that just like we are the previous generation’s future, we are also the next generation’s past. All the decisions that we’re making right now matter because the people who come after us are going to have them, not just as fluttering possibilities of, “Oh, we might go this way, we might go that way,” but as something that is cemented into place. Like, whatever conclusion we reached is fixed, is part of that infrastructure, is hard to even see as a thing you could change, and even harder to dig out if we got it wrong. So the conclusion I’ve always drawn from this is: it doesn’t mean that nothing matters. It’s the other way round. It means that everything matters.
[Flash Forward closing music begins – a snapping, synthy piece]
Flash Forward is hosted by me, Rose Eveleth, and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Mattie Lubchansky. Our sponsorships are handled by Multitude. The intro that you heard was actually the original one I made back in 2015 and I have lost the list of who played which voice from the intro, but I believe that you heard Rory Carroll, Dan Downes, Sheila Gagne, Steven Grenade, Ryan Harrington, Guillermo Herrera, Tamara Krinsky, Michaela Laws, and John Olea.
If you want to suggest a future that we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook, or by email at Info@FlashForwardPod.com. I always love hearing your ideas! And if you want to discuss this episode, some other episode, or just the future in general, you can join the Facebook group! Just search ‘Flash Forward Podcast’ and ask to join.
If you want to support the show further, there are a few ways you can do that. Head to FlashForwardPod.com/Support for more about how to give and to join the Patreon or the Time Traveler Club. Both of those come with all kinds of rewards, including a Slack, a book club, goody bags, a newsletter. All sorts of fun stuff. If financial giving is not in the cards for you, you can head to Apple Podcasts and leave a nice review; that really does help. Or you can just tell a friend about the show. That genuinely does help people find it.
That’s all for this future. Come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
[music fades out]