Best Practice for Forms, Registrations and Documentation

It has been interesting over the last few years seeing how the Zeitgeist has changed regarding gender and sexuality issues. I’m proud to be living in the time when we’re really addressing, and winning the arguments. At the same time I’m ashamed to be in one of the last generations where institutionalised and cultural bigotry is the norm.

This week I’ve been putting together the web-site registration for a new project. I did a lot of searching for best practices regarding registrations and gender. I found very little useful material.

There are several different ways services can ask for gender / sex information.

  • Sex: male or female. – This is the absolute worst of all cases. Sex refers to biological sex. It is none of your damn business what is down my pants. You do not need to know if I have a penis or a vagina. Some folks who use this actually think they mean gender, others use it deliberately to make a nasty point about gender identity.
  • Gender: male or female. – This is better, because it at least asks the person what gender they are. Why do you need to know this? Well in most cases it is so that you can address the person correctly. Gender is the correct criteria then. I can be biologically male, but identify as female, and I’d want to be called Ms, not Mr. Still, it is a problem, because gender identities are quite often non-binary (sex is also sometimes non-binary, but less often).
  • Gender: male, female or transgender – This is a stab in the dark at political correctness, mired by a lack of understanding of what people with non-binary genders actually identify as. I’m no expert, but I’ve come across people who identify with various forms of gender that come into neither of these three categories. On the other hand, we don’t need to have all possible positions and variants included.
  • Gender: ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘its complicated’ – That’s better, and is the one I went with (the better suggestion below wasn’t quite applicable, for reasons I can’t explain here). It is still nowhere near perfect, because it explicitly states that someone with a non-binary gender identity is complicated or somehow doesn’t have a simple understanding of gender. That may be true, but on the other hand may not.
  • Form of address: ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘neutral’ – That is about the best I can think of, because it is specific about what the information is going to be used for. The only slight issue is that “neutral” sounds a bit like “neuter”, which isn’t what I mean.

And my favorite, in the sign-up for the online game Echo Bazaar:

So what is best practice? At the moment for me it is “Form of address: ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘neutral'”, unless we really need to know the person’s gender, in which case I’ll stump for “Gender: ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘its complicated'”.

Anyone else got a better suggestion, or resources?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Best Practice for Forms, Registrations and Documentation

  1. Ian, if it’s none of your damn business what is down one’s panties (or dangling from the back of one’s Na’avi head), then why ask? If you have a pull-down (oo-er) list of forms of address, that should do the trick. I think there is a danger of being *too* politically correct, and technically “sex” is more correct than “gender”. Perhaps a better alternative might be: “What toilet facilities do you use?” and then offer the little icons . But then there may be disability issues, or baby change dilemmas…

  2. Boz

    Ian said: “The only slight issue is that “neutral” sounds a bit like “neuter”, which isn’t what I mean.”

    There are many words which sound like other words. Niggardly for exmaple. I would not worry.

  3. Ian

    “technically “sex” is more correct than “gender”. ” – well it is correct if you’re asking for biological sex. But who actually needs that? Gender is what we’re actually asking for, so surely that is more correct.

    Boz – love it. Yes.

    Sometimes it is interesting to worry, though. I’m not really worried about bad things happening if I get it wrong.

    I have a penchant for solving problems. And I find it entertaining to really think about and solve a problem once and for all, and then just be able to use that solution again and again. Like my gender-neutral list of names, for example.

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