[VCARDDAV] sex vs. gender and social complexities

Sarah Dopp <sarah@sarahdopp.com> Fri, 08 October 2010 18:35 UTC

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From: Sarah Dopp <sarah@sarahdopp.com>
Date: Fri, 08 Oct 2010 11:36:22 -0700
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Subject: [VCARDDAV] sex vs. gender and social complexities
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I'm new to this discussion, and wish to express some concerns about the
treatment of sex/gender in the new VCARD specifications.

As I understand it, the current plan is to call it "Sex" and allow four
integer values: 0, 1, 2, and 9 ("not known," "male," "female," and "not
applicable") [1].  I see two major issues with this plan:

*1) You probably mean Gender, not Sex.
For the purpose of address books and social information, people are
interested in presentation and social categorization -- not shapes of
genitals and configuration of hormones at birth. [2]  We're talking about
gender here.

*2) These data options do not accommodate edge cases.
For most users, the data points of sex and gender are the same. The
distinction, however, is visible in the edge cases (for which there is a
significant population to account for).

With Sex as a category, you need to consider people with intersex conditions
[3], as well as those who have undergone Sexual Reassignment Surgery [4] and
Hormone Replacement Therapy [5].  For many of these people, to choose Male
or Female on a form is to lie about half of their bodies.

With Gender as a category, you need to consider transgender people (in
various stages of transition) [6] and gender-variant people (of various
cultures and identities) [7-10].  People in these groups may claim
identities that blend genders, they may move freely between genders, they
may reject gender altogether, or they may claim new language for their

The bottom line: For someone who claims a gender or sex less clear-cut than
Male or Female, "not known" is offensively inaccurate, and "not applicable"
is offensively dismissive.

*Possible Solutions*

I've argued in the past that Gender is going the way of Race in terms of
meaningfulness for social categorization [11].  I don't see Race on the
VCARD specs -- am I missing it?  Why wasn't it included? If it was left off
because of data complexity, social complications, or irrelevance, I
challenge you to consider the possibility that Gender should be in the same

If you wish to continue including the field, an open text field for keywords
is the most culturally-inclusive solution.

Finite data collection is always socially problematic, but I understand its
importance for aggregation. If this is truly a high priority, I ask that you
add an additional option to account for the cases discussed above. While I
cringe to suggest "Other" as this option [12], it might be the path of least
resistance. (Personally, I'd like to see "It's Complicated" up there.  But
that's just me.) Even better: allow the option to be replaced with an
alternate value provided by the user.

Thanks for your time and consideration.  My reference notes, including two
posts I've written on the subject of gender-variance and data collection,
are below.


[2] http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/index.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_reassignment_surgery
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hormone_replacement_therapy
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_variance
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genderqueer
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_gender
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-spirit
[11] http://www.sarahdopp.com/blog/2008/genders-and-drop-down-menus/

Sarah Dopp
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