(Wondering what in the heck all the terms in this piece are? You might want to check out the Beyond the Binary intro post, which briefly covers some basic definitions.)
Forms are an inescapable aspect of modern life. Any time you need something, there’s bound to be a form. Warranty registration. Driver’s license application. Medical information card. Lease agreement. Utility application. College application. There’s a form that stands between you and a lot of things in your life.
There’s an area of the form which is particularly fraught for trans* people. It’s the part of the form that cis people dance over without a second thought: Sex. (And it’s almost always “sex” not “gender” even though what they really want to know is what your gender presentation is.) Here are your options: Male or Female. Woman or Man. Lady or Gent. Boy or Girl. There are no other options. Nonbinary folk struggle with this area of forms. For binary trans folk pre-transition, this is a painful place. For binary trans folk in transition, it’s a painful place. Hell, for binary trans folk who have transitioned, it’s a painful place. It’s a place to be outed, it’s a place for genital policing. It’s a place which is loaded with meaning.
And for some trans* folk, it is a place of endless heartbreak. Every. Single. Time. I fill out a form, I stop here. There is a long pause. A hesitation. A sigh. I am not male. I am not female. On paper forms, I often leave it blank. Or I write in a note. Sometimes a diatribe about the difference between sex and gender and why the phrasing of this field is so problematic. But on web forms? This is not an option. I am forced to check “female” because that’s my assigned sex, even though it’s not my gender. Because the people who design these forms, they do not understand the distinction between sex and gender. They do not understand what they are asking with this “sex” question.
Because they are usually binary cis people. They can’t imagine a situation in which a seemingly simple question would cause anguish and conflict, so it doesn’t occur to them to restructure their forms to accommodate people with varying gender presentations.
If you’re a cis person who identifies as male or female, whether or not you subscribe to the binary, I want you to think about this the next time you fill out a form. When you get to this question, and you will, think about what is actually being asked. Think about what it actually means. Think about how it would feel to fill out a form with checkboxes which do not include a space for you.
Imagine doing this over, and over, and over again. Imagine dreading the filling out of forms not because it’s a hassle and it’s repetitive and it’s not very fun. Imagine dreading it because you know that you are going to have to lie and erase yourself every time you fill out a form.
Can you see how that might be crushing?
There’s a closely related area on forms which is also problematic: Title. Thankfully, many forms make this area optional, but many do not, especially forms on the Internet. The dropdown list includes things like Miss, Ms., Mrs., Mr., Dr. If you’re a nonbinary and you’re not a doctor, what do you choose when all the other titles are gendered?
What’s tragic is that the “title” field is used to collect information about how someone wants to be addressed. It is, in a way, a nod of respect to the person filling out the form, a polite request to find out which title this person prefers to have used. It is supposed to eliminate awkward and upsetting situations in which the wrong title is used.
But I’m not a Ms. or a Ma’m. I’m not an anything, titlewise, because there aren’t any titles for people like me. So, again, I leave this field blank on paper forms. But on web forms? I’m forced to select a title which makes me cringe every time I hear it. A title which makes me feel like an appropriator. A title which actually erases my identity and gender, and is a sign of profound disrespect when it is used to refer to me.
There are some nice things which people include in form design. I like forms which ask for your legal name, and then ask what you prefer to be called. I think that’s a good way to accommodate some people, although it can turn into an outing for some people (say, if your legal name is James Woods and you like to be called Delilah Woods). This is at least a step in the right direction, though, indicating that one should not assume that assigned name/sex do not equate to personal identity and gender identity.
How can we fix this? Simple. By either dropping the “sex” part of forms, or by changing it to gender, since that’s what they really want to know, when it is actually relevant to know someone’s gender. Companies don’t need to know my gender to fulfill the terms of my warranty. Hence, their warranty forms don’t need a “sex” and “title” box. My doctor does need to know my assigned sex (because it is medically relevant) and my gender identity (so that my doctor understands my experiences and knows how to refer to me). Hence, it’s appropriate to have a “gender” form, which should ideally have a blank which the user can fill out. The problem with checkboxes is that they always leave someone out, and there is a very long list of terms which can be used to refer to gender identity. Better to let people describe themselves.
This doesn’t hurt or infringe upon cis people in any way, but it would make a huge difference for those of us who are trans*, and to those of us who may not want to have our gender outed.
The “title” field could simply be blank, allowing people to fill it out as desired, or a checkbox/field for “no title” could be included to accommodate people who do not have a title. Again, simple change, huge difference.