A tiny curiosity on an irrelevant thing - and a big proposal

Mauri Favaron
Posted April 11, 2010 from Italy

Today, I registered to an information providing site (no need to quote: what I'm about to say is widespread, very common, and tastes illogical the same way).

Among the mandatory information, as usual, I found "gender", with the two usual cases M/F.

I'm wondering, why they want to know. Will the information provided in different way according to gender?

I checked the site sources and, as far as I can figure out the HTML, the site is static. So, whatever you register as male or female, they will give you the very same information. Not surprising, as this information is meteorological data, unlikely to change depending on your gender.

Analyzing a little bit more, you discover many other "irrelevant" data. First and family name, for example: as they ask you to provide your e-mail, would they really desire to identify you they could ask the provider, who is obliged to provide these data.

But let's concentrate on the gender field, as I see it's least useful...

Or not? In these times, I know marketing experts are crazy with gender-specific advertising. That "could" be of some benefit also to me.

But just a moment! The site I registered at sells nothing.

So, is the registration form I've filled not of any real use to the site, but to some advertising company the site will sell my name to?

In Italy this practice is illegal.

And the site is Italian, so in theory they can not sell or give my data to other parties. Or not?

Whatever the reason, I began feeling a bit used.

Additional problem. As the person who fills the form, you are responsible to provide correct data. In principle, not doing so is a crime in Italy.

So if, say, you are female and decide to check the "M" state, you technically have made an offense which might be legally prosecuted. I imagine the courts have plenty of more urgent work to do, than verifying all the crosses you have made in your form-filling life. But in principle, as I said, you made an offense.

But the decision to say "M" or "F" is up to you, after all, and then you will pay for the consequences (zero or offense) of your action.

Provided you know what your actual state is.

This should be easy...

Or not?

Is your "actual state" some legal assignment made on birth? Is it linked to external appearance of genitals? On karyotype?

In most cases you may be quite confident. But, how may you be "absolutely" sure?

In most cases, this is quite obvious.

But there exist exceptions.

The sex assigned on birth may be wrong (it happens).

Or genitals may be ambiguous.

Or karyotype may not be consistent with external aspect.

Or external aspect is not consistent to internal anatomy and function.

Or a combination of all preceding cases.

If this has happened, it is not impossible you imagine your "correct" state be, say, "M", while the correct-correct state is "F" (or even none either!).

If this is, are you doing a crime when selecting the "M" state?

Maybe, you know what your "correct" state is, but is inconsistent to the one regostered originally (suppose, you have been legally assigned "M" at birth, and then around 13 you began menstruate - bit surprising, but also happens).

In this case, by selecting the "M" field you: - Are not committing a crime as this is the sex legally assigned to you - Are committing a crime (and even intentionally) because you know very well you are an "F", but you selected "M".

Of course, you might choose to be reassigned as soon as you discover the "truth" (and maybe, this is what ought to be made - although no explicit mandate is evident).

The preceding case is awkward, but still "easy" - the individual is female, or male, then fitting one state of the two available (although with some idiosyncrasies).

But there are cases which are male and female in the same way. What, for example, of an XY-XX mosaic (some people are "mosaics", derived from the fusion of two embryos).

How should they fill their form?

And what, of people who decided to change their sex? They also exist, and are quite numerous.

Things may get even more tricky. Virtually any mammal is a "micro-mosaic" of an "own line" (which may be XX or XY, or any of the other variants possible) and a few parts per thousands of XX cells of maternal origin. The percentage of maternal cell is higher in placental mammals, as the long gestation time allows many chances to maternal cells to leak through the placenta barrier; is low, virtually zero, in monotrems - cute egg-laying mammals living in Oceania). (Incidentally, it is believed these maternal cells play important functions, helping to prime the immune system).

As a consequence, any son/daughter is also (for a minor but not irrelevant part) the monovular twin sister of his/her biological mother (and vice versa). (And also, seen in another way, that for some 0.1% units human reproduction is non-sexual, as in many plants.)

As these maternal cells play some role essential to the individual survival, why not to include them into the recording?

If the individual is female, then her biological mother is also, and a plain "F" is legally due.

But what in case of a male? Should he sign something like "0.997 M + 0.003 F"?

That would be cytologically fair, but the two-state field in form doesn't allow.

In short, and to arrive at a conclusion in a finite time, other than being irrelevant, the M/F field is also "wrong".

Some sites (for example the Association of Computing Machinery's) allow you to select "M", "F" or "Prefer not to say". That solution seems to me quite interesting (although increasing the memory space necessary to the registration from 1 to 2 bits - a loss some old-style programmers might get resentful of).

A better solution would be to allow for as many genders as people on Earth (this is likely to demand 128 bits or so, to account for all past and future people on a reasonable species lifespan).

But the best solution at all, maybe, is to get rid of the field at all.

Anyone is as they are. Period. With all possible variants "not accounted for". 0 bits, instead of one, so Old True Programmers are even happy. And marketing experts may do as they already do, taking into account recent purchase history.

Fair, even, clean.

Why, then, not doing so?

(The idea of deleting the gender field is not mine: transgender activists advocate for it since a lot of time. My claim is, this data item is not only unrespectful of transgender people, but also of plain common good sense. And a lot of doubts are on what its real utility is, other than cluttering databases with just another junk bit someone will have to spend time and money to back-up.)


Comments 2

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  • Jacqueline Patiño
    Apr 11, 2010
    Apr 11, 2010

    I am sure you are right. I am also sure it will take a long long time for this to be an issue that is taken into account by authorities, woldwide. The reason is very simple: ignorance. Until you wrote, I had no idea there could be so many variations of gender, coming in life so naturally. And the rest of the people are even less aware. Imagine authorities, who have a hard time trying to solve easy things as when to build a sewage system, this would be waaaay too hard for them.

    When will people be gracious enough to spend some time caring about nature more than about money? Hard to say my friend.Let us work on it though.

    One by one, step by step, maybe we will travel around the world.

    Heighten your spirits my friend, maybe you just found your mission in life.

    Love and hugs,


  • Nusrat Ara
    Apr 15, 2010
    Apr 15, 2010

    Jackie is right we lack awareness. Though I haven't encountered many sites where I have to give my gender I have had a lot of problems with my name. See I don't have my family name/surname attached to my name ( A lot of people do it to make a statement but mine has been the wish of a saint/ priest who gave me my name) . I don't have a first name second or last name. But the first and last name boxes are always mandatory . So I write FIRST NAME Nusrat LAST NAME Ara just to make things work and cringe when I receive a response like Dear Ms Ara :(