Sex and Gender

I’ve gotten a few emails and /msgs about this so I really wanted to post a clarification.

When I put the color survey together, I was mostly interested in making maps and tables of color names; the opening survey was almost an afterthought. Elizabeth added a question about chromosomal sex, since it’s closely correlated with colorblindness (she’s one of the rare colorblind women).

We debated for a long time to find a wording of the question that would be answerable unambiguously by everyone, regardless of gender identification or any other issues.  In response to a friend who was suggesting we were overcomplicating things, she said, “I *refuse* to word the question in a way that doesn’t have a good, clear answer available for transsexuals, intersex people, and people who already know they have chromosomal anomalies.”  I felt the same way, and at the same time I didn’t want to assume everyone remembers what the hell chromosomes are. After hours of debate, everyone was happy with this:

Do you have a Y chromosome?

If unsure, select “Yes” if you are physically male and “No” if you are physically female. If you have had SRS, please respond for your sex at birth. This question is relevant to the genetics of colorblindness.

We didn’t add a question about gender identification, in part because I wasn’t really planning to do anything with the survey data beyond basic calibration and didn’t want to hassle people with more questions, and in part because gender is really complicated.  We recently programmed Bucket, the IRC chat bot in #xkcd, to allow people set their gender so he can use pronouns for them.  This ended up taking hundreds of lines of code, three pages of documentation, and six different sets of pronouns and variables, just to cover all the basic ways people in the channel with different gender identifications wanted to be referred to (even without invented pronouns like “xe”, which we vetoed).  And that’s just to cover the pronouns.  The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics.

So when I wrote the survey, I really didn’t have anything in mind for the data. After it went up, I saw the DoghouseDiaries comic, and immediately wanted to investigate.  I was really amazed by the results, particularly the top-five list of colors, which came as a complete surprise.  Everyone agreed it was the most interesting of my results (at some point, my friends were sick of hearing me talk about hues and saturations) and I couldn’t resist publishing it somehow.

Originally, my post had a big wall of text discussing how all I had was chromosomal data, and that what the comic talked about was gender identification.  I rewrote this post a bunch of times, and ended up with roughly the wording that’s there now:

[...] realized I could test it (as far as chromosomal sex goes, anyway, which we asked about because it’s tied to colorblindness).

I didn’t want to spend a long time boring people about sex and gender (I’ll talk forever if you let me), but I also wanted to clarify that this was something I cared about and was trying to pay proper attention to.  I ran it by some friends before posting, and they approved; one specifically thanked me for adding that note.  So I figured I’d found a good balance.

But a number of people were still offended or upset by my use of the chromosomal data in a conversation about gender. Now, there are always going to be people upset about anything; as Ford Prefect said, “Fuck ‘em. You can’t care about every damn thing.” But this is an issue I really do care about, and one I spend a lot of time trying to get right—and I genuinely appreciate the guidance. If people were offended or feel I didn’t handle this right, I’m sorry, and it’s my fault. But it wasn’t for lack of caring.

And to anyone writing software that handles gender or sex information, it’s a good reminder that these questions are not always straightforward for everyone, and a little courtesy can do a lot to make someone feel respected.

306 thoughts on “Sex and Gender

  1. First You got a great blog .I will be interested in more similar topics. i see you got really very useful topics, i will be always checking your blog thanks. Matthew Woodward

  2. You can’t care about every damn thing.” But this is an issue I really do care about, and one I spend a lot of time trying to get right—and I genuinely appreciate the guidance. If people were offended or feel I didn’t handle this right, I’m sorry, and it’s my fault. But it wasn’t for lack of caring.

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