Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Third Field

If you've ever taken a survey, or filled out your detailed information on some kind of form, you've been presented with one or both of two particular fields. Although the labels change, generally they show up as "Sex:" and "Orientation:". But I would argue that these two fields are not adequate to describe the human population when one provides for the existence of transgender individuals - individuals for whom their gender does not match their sex.

The first problem is this ambiguous "sex" field. Is it referring to sex, or gender? Sometimes it's actually labelled gender. In reality, it's asking for both (tacitly assuming the two are one and the same). Although in some cases, depending on the purposes of whatever it is that's doing the asking, it may be referring to one or the other. But this is often not clear. And it does not provide a transgender person the opportunity to give two separate answers.

Most people are cis-gendered. They make up the majority. So we are talking about minority concerns here - but minorities deserve to be recognized. Especially when the recognition of a minority indicates a flaw in our basic understanding of something. In this case, sex and gender. They are not the same thing. The fact that they are the same for most people explains why it's taken us so long to realize the difference. But now, having noticed the difference, does it make sense to go on pretending they're the same? (That's not how we do it in science).

One solution that some people have tried is by adding a third option to the ambiguous "sex and/or gender" field. In addition to "male" and "female", there might be an "other" option. But if there's a meaningful point to be asking people their sex and/or gender in the first place, I don't think that answering "other" gives enough information for statistical analysis. If it matters enough that you're either male or female, then it should be important whether your sex is male and gender is female, or whether your sex is female and gender is male. Especially if the survey/form is relying more on one of these than the other, but has done a poor job of indicating that (and we must be forgiving, because in this confused culture, one cannot be sure that when somebody uses the term "sex" or "gender", they are really being as precise as one could hope).

So a better solution would be to add a third field, in between the ambiguous "sex and/or gender" field, and the orientation field (which we'll get to shortly). It's simple - all you have to do is split sex and gender into two separate fields. Granted, for most people, who are cis-gendered, their answers to these two questions will be the same. But doing this not only clarifies the concept and the language, but it acknowledges the existence of transgender people.

No doubt, the conservative majority will groan, and whine about adding what is sure to be a "redundant" and superfluous box to their forms. I can hear it now. "Why d'I got ta answer this damn question twice?!" We can do one of two things. Cave in to their lazy, regressive demands, or simply plow forward in the interest of tolerance and diversity. That having been said, I'm not opposed to streamlining the process. For example, provide a "Sex:" field with the options, "male", "female", and "other" - so that when someone selects "other", another field will pop up (increasingly relevant in this digital age) allowing them to indicate their gender independently from their sex. Problem solved!

Now, to be fully inclusive - and isn't that a worthwhile goal? - we would need options for people who are intersexed, androgynous, bigender, nonbinary, and any number of other combinations. The best, and perhaps only, way to adequately prepare for these possibilities is to simply make these things text fields, instead of radio buttons. This may be less precise for statistical purposes, but for anyone interested in inclusivity, at the very least, you could provide these options in addition to the more standard fare, in order to give a person the ability to identify themselves, whether as an alternative or an addition to the more standard determinations.

Now, we've covered the third field. But since we're talking about modifying the "Sex:" and "Orientation:" fields for improved inclusivity, we should take a moment to explore the limitations of that "Orientation:" field, because it is no less problematic than the ambiguous "sex and/or gender" field was. I imagine there was a time when this field wasn't even needed, because it was assumed that everybody was straight. Things are different today. But even giving people the choice between "gay" and "straight" isn't perfect - and not because it marginalizes people who are bisexual (which it does). It's because the terminology itself is fundamentally flawed, if we want to allow for the previously identified distinction between sex and gender.

As I've discussed before, the problem with the terms "gay" and "straight" is that they do not focus on the target of a person's sexual attraction, but rather a relationship between the sex and/or genders (again, we're being ambiguous) of the subject and the object of the attraction. Logically, this seems counter-intuitive (at least to me - shouldn't your sexual orientation tell who you're attracted to, not make some ambiguous statement about sex and/or gender?), but it makes sense that our understanding has developed this way.

To start with, the default state of men being attracted to women and vice versa can more easily be summed up with the single term "heterosexual" (especially because if you add another field to identify a person's "sex and/or gender", then you'll know everything you need to know in this limited framework), rather than adding another option, and splitting it into "male-attracted" and "female-attracted".

Then, the main alternative to this heteronormative standard that we've been introduced to as a society is homosexuality. It's only natural that, as a result, we've focused on characterizing people's sexual orientations based on the relationship between sexes and/or genders. I would argue, however, that we're moving into a post-LGB world, where it's beginning to make more sense to define a person's orientation in terms of who they're attracted to, instead of this archaic emphasis on the relationship between sexes and/or genders.

This becomes ever more obvious when we account for the difference between sex and gender, and provide for the existence of transgender individuals. I've written at length before about how the terms "gay" and "straight" are inadequate for describing a transgendered person's sexual orientation, precisely because of this irritating ambiguity between sex and gender. How do you identify the relationship between two people's sexes and/or genders when that relationship is going to be different depending on whether you use sex or gender, and when it is not clear (or changes in different situations) whether it is sex or gender that is to be used?

It's a quagmire. But there's a simple solution - provided we're willing to shift our perspective in a significant way. But it's logical. We just need to stop thinking in terms of "gay and straight", and turn the focus away from the subject, to the object of a person's attraction. Who are you attracted to? That alone should determine your sexual orientation, regardless of who it is you happen to be.

Now, I can foresee this paradigm shift potentially tearing apart the community bonds that the various queer cultures have constructed for community and solidarity against conventional society. I'm not interested in destroying those foundations. I have no problem with people continuing to identify as "gay" or "lesbian" or anything else. And it's still the case that in terms of dating prospects, gay people and straight people are going to want to stick to their own sides of the bar, simply because that's how they're going to find the people that are going to be willing to date them.

But, again, if we want to be inclusive not just of LGB people, but T people as well, we need to at least construct some labels for sexual orientations that do not have such a strong reliance on the synergy between a person's sex and gender. It could be as simple as adding the options "male-oriented", and "female-oriented" - which, in addition to the provided sex and/or gender field(s), could tell a researcher all he needs to know (and more) about whether a person is "gay" or "straight".

It gets a little bit more complicated when we start to consider just all the sorts and combinations of people and things that a person can be attracted to (starting with asking the thorny question of whether people can be attracted to genders and not just sexes). Ideally, there'd be options for people who are pansexual, omnisexual, asexual, and any number of other colorful varieties of sexuality. Again, as with the sex and gender fields, it would be best to use a text field instead of the typical radio buttons.

I know that it probably sounds like I'm trying to make things a lot more complicated than they already are - but the truth is that life is complicated, and people are complicated. And while these changes do not have to be made, they are essential for anyone interested in being more tolerant and inclusive of minorities. The good news is that I've been working on a neat and compact way for people to identify themselves to others visually, that is very open-ended, yet need not be any more complicated than a person desires. I call it "SGO Notation", and I plan to write up a post about it very soon.

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