Beyond the Binary: Forms

(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.

8 Comments on Beyond the Binary: Forms

  1. My university has legal name/preferred name (although until recently the “preferred name” field was all-but-irrelevant; your legal name was what showed up in class attendance lists, for example). And it has checkboxes for “male” “female” and “trans”, which, while not perfect, is definitely an improvement.

    A blank space would really be best. Or even having the checkboxes include one for “other” would be an improvement over what most people do.

    And your point on titles is well-taken too.

  2. I very much like M. for titles — it’s pronounced ’em’ for people who process text as voice. Pity I don’t get to use it much.

    And oh yeah the forms. It always makes me feel uncomfortable when I’m faced with M/F ticky boxes and I fit fairly well into the binary for a trans* person.

  3. I’ve seen the “male” “female” “trans” framing on forms before, and it actually rather bothers me, because it implies that “trans” is an entirely different gender, separate from male and female, off in its own little corner, and also that “trans” describes a single identity instead of many different identities on a spectrum (male and female, after all, are discrete gender identities—it would be like having a form that asks people to choose between “apple” “orange” and “plant”). I think my ideal checkbox form would probably read:

    Gender Identity:

    At least everyone could have a place, even if the specific term they used for their gender identity within the categories of “nonbinary” and “nongendered” wasn’t listed. A blank space to fill out by hand would be better, though. For doctors offices and doctors offices only (I can’t see how it would be relevant anywhere else), a separate area to fill out assigned sex at birth would be appropriate.

    kaninchenzero, I LOVE M. I may have to start using it right this very minute.

  4. @meloukhia Yeah, that’s what bothers me about the male/female/trans framing as well. I do like, though, that with paper forms, in instances where being trans is relevant, one could, say, check off “male” and “trans”.

    It still is far from ideal, and it does still bother me. But it is better than the wholly binary restriction, and shows they’ve put some thought into it.

    I like your checkbox form best, I have to say. It does seem to cover most eventualities.

  5. I hate ticking the ‘female’ box on forms, because it’s inaccurate. Yes, I look female. Yes, if you really want to know, my genitals are female. And yes, I will accept female pronouns because trying to explain that I’m not trans, but I’d rather be thought of as male, is just too daunting.
    An ‘Other’ box would be really nice. So would ‘nonbinary’, which is how I think of myself.
    And I would give up chocolate to live in a world where forms included pronoun preference and no justifications were required.

  6. I am a student representative on the student union and senate at a Canadian university, and I have started working on this issue for online and paper surveys used by our office and the institution.
    I have not been able to completely eliminate the binary in our surveys, but I have managed this:

    prefer not to specify

    It’s not perfect, but it is a big improvement because now our students don’t have to identify a gender in order to continue the survey and have their opinions heard!
    I am lucky that my University is an arts uni in a very progressive city (Vancouver, BC)

  7. As a cis woman, indeed, I never think about this when filling out forms. However, I do notice and appreciate it when surveys have an “Other”/”Prefer Not to Specify” box or don’t make it mandatory to check the box (as with drop-down menus on online forms). I remember about a year ago, Jim Sinclair was trying to get Facebook to provide an “Other” box for sex. I seem to remember the obviously cissexist workaround Facebook came up with as a response, was rather awkward: you first had to specify a sex, then could remove it so that it wouldn’t appear on your profile, but friends would still be notified of updates with your former gender pronoun; I don’t see why they won’t just use xe/zie/they/whatever.

  8. I particularly hate the residence forms, myself. I know they divide up the first-years into gender-segregated suites here and all, but that really left me in an awkward position. I ended up ‘Female’, since at least that way no one can challenge me on it.

    I am so glad I joined Facebook before the sex-specification thing was a required field. It has no choice but to refer to me as ‘they’, and every time I log in it prompts me to choose one, which I ignore. ‘Which example applies to you? Right now, your profile make be confusing. Please choose how we should refer to you.’ Nice wording, I suppose, but how hard would it be to offer more choices?

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