When I met sexuality documentary filmmaker Priscilla Bertucci back in March, I knew I’d want to check out her project, SsexBbox as soon as I could. The project is a far-reaching one, using many forms of media, and aims to explore sexuality itself as a first-class subject of study rather than merely something humans do for fun or reproduction (not that there’s anything wrong with that). So I was naturally eager to agree to contribute to her “pocket sized zine” when she asked me to.

As I’m wont to do, my article explores the intersection of gender, sexuality and technology. Since this topic is so broad, the strict word limit was a real challenge. But I like such intellectual challenges. The following is a reprint of my contribution, but don’t let the fact that you’re reading my piece here stop you from exploring SsexBbox’s new mini-blog/online magazine and its other intriguing contributions.

Gender is a text field, by maymay

In one hand, as developmental psychologist Gertrude Wyatt once remarked, the “symbolic transformation of bits of reality into language [is] part and parcel of the individual’s ego development.” If we can accept that, then finding our own words is more than merely good communication, it’s literally necessary for growing up human. There is no more universal human experience than that of describing one’s own identity.

In the other, as “wrongologist” Kathryn Shulz said, “the miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.” This is no more profoundly expressed than through our species’ incredible use of technology, the force of which transforms the impossible into the possible. We have reached a point where arguably the most fundamental of God’s gifts to humankind—words—have come full circle.

It is now our words, in the form of programming languages, that are driving the evolution of technology. The corpus of this technological literature changes our physical reality, offering us everything from hormone therapies to space shuttles to online social networks. And as new technologies are developed, technology itself mimics its creator.

Except, that is, in at least one very crucial arena: the description of ourselves. To our technology, our genders are among our most baffling human properties. The binary coarseness with which our technology encodes this information should serve as a humbling reminder to anyone arrogantly proclaiming humanity’s superior intelligence; if your laptop’s screen can display millions of colors, why can your Facebook profile only display one of two options for gender?

Today’s standard for such things is defined in the International Organization for Standardization’s specification titled “Information technology — Codes for the representation of human sexes,” referred to as ISO 5218. This worldwide standard, most recently updated in July 2004, defines 4 mutually exclusive options: “male”, “female”, “not known”, and “not applicable”. It’s a simple scheme that takes a total of 2 computer bits to record.

That’s woefully inadequate—and we can do better. But how?

One early attempt called “Yay! Genderform” offers you 947 options using checkboxes, which allows you to combine each option with any other option for “a total of 1.1896×10285 or 1.1 quattruornovemgintillion possible combinations, more than there are elementary particles in the universe. If each option were a computer bit, it would take 119 bytes to encode a combination.” Though a good illustration of the problem space, staring at an interface of 947 possible boxes to check isn’t merely practically unusable, it fails to free us from the flawed paradigm’s constraints: we need to break out of boxes altogether.

A simple interface can be a gateway to endless possibilities. Take, for example, Google’s famously simple homepage; using just a single text field, Google gives you access to the entire searchable Internet. So, too, can a text field access the symbolic gender galaxy—or at least a coordinate within it.

The words we use to communicate are the tools with which we teach each other—and our software—about ourselves, who we are, who we like, and why. Designing sexist systems might sound brain-dead, but it’s actually how many people think of gender issues in their mind. They quite literally don’t see different humans as being equal; when two men marry, they need to figure out “which is the wife” and so they literally imbue the code they write, and the technology they build, with rigidly gendered, technically inaccurate world views.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to build a world where we can either limit or accept the possibilities of the people we interact with. Therefore, we ought remember Internet pioneer Jon Postel’s Law: “be liberal in what you accept.” Put another way: don’t limit us with boxes, because, as Eddie Izzard said, “there’s gonna be a lot more guys with makeup during this millennium!”

Formerly a professional web developer, maymay is now a social justice technologist whose work primarily intersects with issues of digital civil liberties and sexual freedom. He is the co-author of Foundation Website Creation and AdvancED CSS, the founder of the sexuality education conference series KinkForAll.org, and host of the KinkOnTap.com Internet radio talk show. His seminars on technology and sexuality have been featured at conferences from coast to coast, and he prefers couches to hotel rooms. Learn more at maybemaimed.com/cv.

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