Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do you have a Y chromosome?

I swear I don't regularly read the xkcd blog, particularly not on Saturday mornings, but I ended up there due to a complicated series of links that I couldn't even begin to retrace, and while there I stumbled across this.

I guess he was conducting some sort of a survey about colors and how people name them, or something, and part of the data he was interested in collecting was respondents' chromosomal sex--because it relates to colorblindness.

I'm by-and-large cisgender, but I'm still always pissed off whenever a form or survey or anything asks a sex-or-gender related question and gives only the options M and F (not only, but definitely not least, because one of the people I care most about in the world is somewhere-or-other on the trans spectrum). It's a small thing, but, you know, small things suck, right?

So, from that perspective, I'm always interested in people who set it up differently, and in discussions about setting it up. So xkcd's discussion here is interesting to me.

The way he set up the question was this: he asked "Do you have a Y chromosome?" and allowed answers of "don't know," "yes," and "no." Underneath, a brief description says "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."

It's not perfect (for example, if I were some form of intersex, I would probably answer "Don't know" but would feel a bit iffy about it), but it seems like a good start for how to phrase things when chromosomal (and therefore some aspects of phsyical) sex is what matters--which, frankly, is not that often, but does occur sometimes. I like especially that the note explains why the question is being asked; leaving the reason unstated, as most do, assumes and implies that the importance and reality of our binary gender distinction is unquestionable and far more broadly applicable than it actually is.

(The comments section is huge and honestly I didn't read any of it, assuming it would be all big nerds, you know? Nerdy webcomic fans? HATE THEM.)

UPDATE Commenter Melinda has made me aware of some additional information, in light of which I would like to point out that none of this means that Randall (the writer of xkcd) isn't kind of a douche on the issue at times. See comments.


Randal Graves said...

Different category, but the university admin just yesterday sent out an email stating that all employees now (as opposed to before? I had assumed we did - shows how much I pay attention) must officially declare their ethnicity for fed/state fiduciary purposes.

Given that it's a 'save our schools!' type of plea, any categorization strikes me as goofy.* Just give us some of that non-Predator drone money and be done with it.

*a discussion of the utility of categorization for such things is a whole other wormy can.

Ethan said...

Moral of the story: categorization is weird.

Melinda said...

The problem is, Randall actually used the data to label people with a Y chromosome as "guys" and people without as "girls." Here's the post: It's not so cool to make the effort to write a question to be inclusive of trans, intersex, and non-binary people, and then to completely backtrack and label everyone with a Y chromosome as "guys." It's inaccurate and offensive.

Ethan said...

Ah....ugh. I saw that the post I linked to was a response to people being upset with him for something else, but for some reason (I forgot, I think, honestly) I didn't check out the original issue. Reading it now, I'd like to say that he's slightly excused by the fact that he's responding to someone else's shitty comic that uses "guys" and "girls," but even that iffy reasoning falls apart when he starts referring to "masculine" and "feminine" of his own complete volition. There's nothing better than showing that you're aware of the issue and then ignoring it.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm lucky enough not to be interested in Randall as a person, and not part of whatever community he's built up at xkcd. So to me the phrasing of the question, and his discussion of it, is still interesting, despite his apparent ignoramous-ness. It's nice that he apologized (and if he really is as popular with programmers as he seems to be, I'm sincerely grateful to him for the last paragraph of the sex and gender post), but it's a weird, big mistake to have made in the first place if it is actually something you "really do care about and...spend a lot of time trying to get right."