High-tech

Taking the Internet Beyond Binary Genders

Social Issues

A tool co-created by the gender-diverse community is launching to help businesses function online without alienating people who don’t conform to male or female

The internet seems to love people asking what gender they are.

Website registrations that don’t ask users to gender themselves are few and far between, be it for purposes like online banking needing to confirm identity or companies simply taking the opportunity to collect a bit of market research data.

For a lot of New Zealanders, it’s a seemingly innocuous matter of ticking a box and moving on without a second thought – easy enough to do if one of the two options presented actually describe you.

But for members of the gender-diverse community, facing the dichotomous choice of male or female can leave them not only unable to give a correct answer, but feeling unseen and invisible.

For Quack Pirihi, a non-binary/takutāpui advocate for gender diverse communities, it can be a tiring day-to-day reminder of the world not having space for them.

“Just the other day a friend of mine was on TV, so I went to sign up for Three Now – and there it was again,” they said – that omnipresent drop-down box compelling you to select male or female.

The near ubiquitous binary choice that erases anything outside of the two traditional genders. Photo: Supplied

The internet has been a place where people can live out parts of their identity they aren’t safe to reveal in real life since its inception. But shifts towards verified identities online may mean a change to that, with websites asking people to dig out their birth certificates to prove birth-assigned gender.

A project being launched today by Spark and rainbow mental health group OutLine Aotearoa aims to make the internet a gender-inclusive place by giving businesses an online tool that builds code for website updates that deal with gender in a more accurate way.

The Beyond Binary Code provides businesses with the copy-and-paste HTML blueprint for a new website section after a questionnaire finding out what gender data they actually need to know – and whether gender is an important data point for them after all.

OutLine co-chair Aych McArdle says it’s an easy way for businesses to get their heads around a way of thinking about gender that may be new to them.

“People [may] not realize it, but they could be alienating a potential audience by not recognizing the sensitivity of this information for some,” McArdle said. “The site can show the best practice way of navigating this online and walk them through figuring out what they actually need.”

McArdle hopes the code can spark a change in how businesses work online – a place New Zealanders are spending more and more of their lives.

“The internet is a glorious place. It’s both delicious and dangerous. It can be a place where we can escape, but it can also magnify oppression – like the effects of some comment sections on minority groups. We want to create a better internet, where gender-diverse people can flourish.”

OutLine Aotearoa co-chair Aych McArdle says they are “nervously optimistic” that people will want to dive deep into the resources made available alongside the code. Photo: Supplied

McArdle recognizes the worth of being recognized as who you truly are on official documentation. It meant a lot to them when the Electoral Commission added gender-neutral titles in 2020.

“Getting that physical piece of mail with Mx McArdle on it gave me a big sense of gender euphoria. So, it didn’t out me or identify me to my flatmates.”

And it’s a commonly felt issue among the gender-diverse.

In a survey of non-binary participants conducted by Spark and OutLine Aotearoa, more than 84 percent of respondents felt often or always misrepresented when sharing gender information online with a business or organization.

“It definitely creates a sense of isolation and loneliness,” said McArdle. “Especially in Covid-19 times, where more and more aspects of life are shifting online.”

And simple moves like updating gender data questions may be good business sense as well, with the same survey showing 89 percent of respondents saying they’d go back to a business from which they had a positive experience when sharing gender related data.

Meanwhile, half of respondents said they wouldn’t recommend a business to friends if they felt it had misrepresented them.

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson said data played a vital role in businesses knowing their customer base, but if the data wasn’t collected or used correctly it could create negative experiences for the same customers.

Her hope is that the tool influences businesses to “build an internet with richer, more sophisticated datascapes that represent the diversity of Aotearoa”.

For many of the respondents of the survey, gender-inclusive options made them feel seen and like they actually exist – in stark contrast to how they feel at other times.

“I think what’s really important to recognize is how such a small action like including they/them pronouns can make a huge impact to someone like me,” said Pirihi. “I feel seen and respected. It shows me this company doesn’t just want my money, but genuinely holds a space for me.”

Quack Pirihi wants to see a world not being told their gender is too confusing at job interviews. Photo: Supplied

And while it seems like a small thing to some people, the constant reminders of your identity not having a space build up – especially when you are misgendered many times every day.

“I’ve often been asked why I feel like I need a checkbox that I can identify with. And it’s not so much that the checkbox is going to be the make or break of my identity – my identity is a lot stronger than that,” Pirihi said. “But the constant reminder of feeling like you don’t have a place, like there isn’t an option for you to select, makes me feel whakamā.”

Pirihi stressed these changes weren’t new or radical.

“We’ve always had these identities,” they said. “We just haven’t had the names to use or space for them.”

The survey also outlined the top five ways businesses could represent and engage with gender in an inclusive way, according to respondents. These were:

  • Ensure all communications use gender inclusive language
  • Provide gender inclusive spaces such as changing rooms and bathrooms
  • Make my gender data point optional
  • Use gender neutral/inclusive representational imagery within marketing and communications
  • Give me clarity on how and when my gender information will be used.

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