Falsehoods programmers believe about gender (and sex)

Sex and gender are complicated. If you want my advice, it's that your app probably doesn't even need to collect this information.

Falsehoods programmers believe about gender (and sex)

Don't worry, programmers; plenty of doctors, therapists, lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, and stand up comedians are all operating under the same false assumptions. Sex and gender are complicated. If you want my advice, it's that your app probably doesn't even need to collect this information. And if it does, you need to be sure you understand why and be clear about what it's used for.

The Falsehoods

  1. There are two distinct genders
  2. There are 3 distinct genders?
  3. There is an enumerable set of genders
  4. Okay, in a given culture there is an enumerable set of genders
  5. Sex and gender are the same thing
  6. Well, close enough that they can be used interchangeably
  7. Sex will determine gender
  8. Intersex conditions are extremely rare
  9. Gender can be reliably observed at birth
  10. I meant sex can be observed
  11. Come on!
  12. Gender is reliably recorded on birth certificates
  13. Gender can be reliably determined by some medical test
  14. Sex can be determined by a test?
  15. There is some trait that defines a person's sex
  16. There are two opposite sexes
  17. Fine, but there are definitely two distinct sexes
  18. Everyone has one gender
  19. Everyone has a fixed set of genders
  20. Everyone has a consistent gender throughout their lifetime
  21. Everyone knows what their gender is
  22. Everyone has one gender
  23. Transgender is a gender
  24. Transgender people are extremely rare
  25. Non-binary people are extremely rare
  26. There are only he/him and she/her pronouns
  27. And they/them
  28. Okay, in a given culture there is an enumerable set of pronouns
  29. What do you mean by neo-pronouns?
  30. Whatever, a person would only use one set of pronouns at a time
  31. A person's legal gender will match their actual gender
  32. A person's legal documents will all agree on a person's gender
  33. There is such a thing as a legal gender
  34. At least this list is exhaustive, right?

Real Talk

While this list is meant to be informative, it was also a little bit tongue in cheek. I mean, even more so than usual. And it's a coming out post. I'm transgender. And gay, for that matter. This will come as no surprise to the people who know me personally or who follow me on Twitter. I started coming out at the beginning of 2018, but I kept it off my blog for the last year and a half. Partially because transition sort of overwhelmed the rest of my life for quite a while and I wanted this little space where it wasn't a concern. Partially because I thought it shouldn't matter; that it wasn't relevant to the software engineering topics I discuss here. Partially because I was afraid of discrimination.

But, it's pride month. My understanding of the concept of pride has evolved over time. I started out thinking that pride was really just a refusal to be ashamed. I didn't see being gay or trans as something to be proud of. They're not accomplishments. But they don't have to be. Since then, I've come to be proud of myself. Not because of my gender, but inclusive of it. And I'm proud of my community. I've also grown to appreciate the importance of visibility. Until recently, I didn't really have any role models I could look up to. I couldn't imagine a life where I could be happy, successful, or accepted and also be my true self. In part, that's because I never had any example to follow. It's hard to describe how much that hurt me. How much I hurt myself because of it. And it's why I think it's so important to be visible.

The conclusion of my views on pride and visibility is that being open about these parts of myself is not unprofessional. And in fact it's vitally important for me to do. For myself. For my community. And most importantly for the people who are struggling alone and in secret with their own identities. I can't divorce myself as an engineer from the rest of me. And I shouldn't try. Case in point: now you know something about the experience that informed that list.

Cover photo by unsplash-logoCecilie Johnsen