Dear Silicon Valley,
First of all, I don’t know if I’ve told you this lately, but I love you. We do great things here, and this life is pretty damned fun. You’ve taken very good care of me, introduced me to brilliant people, given me the tools to stay connected with a world of friends, and even started paying my rent. I’m forever grateful that we found each other.
And I have a favor to ask.
I’m noticing that the stuff we make here — these websites and tools and communities — can influence the rest of the world pretty significantly. It used to be that only the geeks were using the Internet, but now it’s becoming “pretty much everybody.” And here’s the powerful thing: when a website is considered “good,” whatever that website displays as content, images, default settings, or options is considered “normal” by its users. You have the power to influence “normal.” I could give you examples, but I know you already know what I’m talking about.
The favor I want to ask is this: please think about how you’re handling race and gender on your websites. Just look at it. You don’t have to change anything. Just make a mental note in your head about what your saying to your users about the importance of race and gender, and the categories that exist for them.
I’ll give you a hint: If you’re still asking about race in a required drop-down menu, you’re way behind. Because doing it that way says to a user:
- You have a race.
- It’s really important to me.
- It’s one (and only one) of these listed here.
Seriously, I really don’t think you’re doing this, because it would be horribly weird. My friend with the half-Jamaican-half-Chinese father and Irish immigrant mother would either laugh hysterically at you or be extraordinarily offended. “You want me to tell you what? WHY??”
The way we build a profile page matters. You get that it matters.
So… this next part’s gonna sound a little weird, but hear me out for a minute. I think gender is taking the same path as race. It’s still visually defining, but people are starting to acknowledge that there are grey areas. And those grey areas are growing.
There’s a longstanding argument that “male” and “female” are a biologically-defined and relevant way to split our population in half. But if you’ve ever met a feminine man or a masculine woman, you know that these categories are way too rough to mean anything more than a stereotype sometimes.
It goes deeper than that. For example, within lesbian communities, “butch” and “femme” have been considered separate genders for awhile now. Yes, they’re both female (well, sometimes), but they have different roles both in the community and in relationships (except when they don’t, which is true for any gender). There’s also a growing presence of people who are living today as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Sometimes you notice them and sometimes you don’t. (Hint: You won’t know how many you aren’t noticing — that’s the point.) There are people born intersex — with the biological features of more than one gender (and there are more of these than you might expect). And you may have noticed this in cities and among young people — there’s also a growing presence of folks whose genders you just can’t identify. Some of them, if you ask them respectfully, will tell you they feel like both genders. Or neither gender. Or a gender that needs a new name. They might answer to both “he” and “she,” or they might prefer something different. They’re in-between, and that’s where they belong.
Just for a minute, try to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who has spent a lifetime feeling just as uncomfortable in the men’s locker room as in the women’s locker room — for whatever reason. Imagine having to dress in clothing that just feels wrong to you, everyday, because you know it means you’ll be treated better than you would if you wore what you like. Imagine walking through the world knowing that everyone’s first assumptions about how you see yourself, who you love, and what feels right for you are completely wrong.
Now imagine signing up for a cool website, and then being required to select an option from a drop-down menu that doesn’t include anything that represents you. If you don’t decide to close the browser window right then and there, you’ll probably pick the gender of the restroom you still use in public when you have no other choice (even though people might stop you to tell you you’re in the wrong one no matter what), and you’ll feel defeated. You’ll want to argue that whatever they think they’re learning from that drop-down menu, it’s not really true. You’ll want to tell them that they’re adding to your humiliation by making you do this. You’ll want to tell them that they’re missing a huge part of you by boiling this rich and beautiful characteristic down into a two-option drop-down menu.
Okay, you can come back now. That’s all I needed from you — just to think about it. The truth is, there are no perfect solutions to this problem right now. Gender is still relevant (except when it’s not) and drop-downs are still the cleanest way to gather data (except when they’re not). To quote Facebook (a site that’s only sort of doing it wrong), “It’s complicated.”
So just keep an eye out. Be aware of what you’re calling normal. Make a mental note of who it might be excluding. Make conscious choices about how you handle things. And please remind the web developer in the next cubicle to do the same.
Thanks and love,