Asking about gender – inclusivity and trying to get it “right”

The young person sat in front of me is noticeably androgynous in a loose tunic, with elfin features, the sharp cheekbones of a male-model, and an overgrown pixie-cut. My assessment form demands a tick in the box, are they male or female? I wonder if they fall somewhere outside of this binary, if maybe they define themselves as genderqueer, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum. Maybe they don’t use any label for how they see themselves. I’d like think of myself as reasonably open-minded and something of an ally for LGBT rights and gender diversity, so I want to make an effort, to get it “right”. But I’m also conscious of causing offence – what if they do identify as male, will they be insulted by my asking? Maybe they’ve had a lifetime of being mislabelled as feminine. Will this break down our relationship before it’s even begun?

“What would you like me to put down for gender?”

(pause, confused expression) “Um…male”

“Okay… I only ask because some people identify as genders different from “male” or “female””

“Oh yeah… I know some people like that”

“Okay, what shall I put for your ethnicity?”

And so we move on.

This encounter made me think about how I ask questions about demographics and diversity. In healthcare often the forms we use as restricted – used to generate statistics and leaving little room for greyer areas. But there are many aspects of personhood that aren’t immediately obvious. I have no difficulty asking someone their age, but somehow checking in with someone about issues such as gender and sexual orientation feels more difficult – my concern is that others will think I have made assumptions about them, “What makes you think I’m gay?”.

One way of making diversity questions less personal is to ask them routinely, even when the answer may appear “obvious”. Guesses at ethnicity and sexual orientation are also open to error without checking in (for example: someone who appears caucasian but is actually of mixed heritage). It is time-consuming to run through these kinds of questions but when I have the chance I do find it helpful. Most of the clients I work with have “majority” characteristics but they are rarely offended when I ask anyway. Often the form can be a starting point for these conversations “It’s something we ask everyone” and can reveal difference that isn’t immediately obvious in a relatively safe manner. Giving people assessment forms to complete themselves may also be another route, and including “other” boxes alongside diversity checklists. I also wonder, for those who sit in the majority groups, whether being asked the question provokes some thinking about diversity and brings a degree of normalisation.

NB – I don’t consider myself an expert on these topics, this is merely a reflection on my own experience. I recommend anyone interested in informing themselves about being sensitive and inclusive towards gender diverse individuals do some research – e.g. BPS, genderbread  , Christine Richards

The Death of MSN Messenger (and the rise of pseudo-communication)

As someone who was a child in the 90s, I was part of a generation of early-adopters of the internet. I still remember well spending hours downloading a single album-track off Napster, being yelled at by my parents to get off the computer so that they could use the phone, and the ever-distinguishable cadent chime of the dial-up.

And there was MSN messenger (or just ‘MSN’, as we referred to it), the online instant-messenging service we were all hooked on. I remember spending many hours spent after school in impossible-to-follow group conversations (sometimes with 8+ members), gossiping and chattering. Picking out them the most appropriate morbid lyric to use as my screen-name and a high-contrast black and white photo of my face for an avatar. The next day much real-life conversation was devoted to the previous night’s MSN adventures.

As a shy teenager who often remained quiet in social gatherings, MSN gave me an opportunity to talk to others in a way I often didn’t have the chance to. I felt pretty proud of my long list of contacts (many of whom were people I’d never actually met).Online messaging certainly added an ease to staying in touch with further-away contacts and making plans, but the new technology also seemed to facilitate a particular kind of nastiness in people. Unknown before, it was now very possible to have a dramatic ‘fight’ online, and I remember groups of friends gathering around a computer, pretending to be someone else to get some personal and embarrassing information out of others.

Some things are admittedly easier to type than they are to say out loud. Embarrassing now, but I remember keeping an MSN transcript in which my then-boyfriend had come very close to saying he loved me. I cherished it, re-reading it frequently. However, this medium also lent an ease to saying the kind of things that social acceptability might prevent you from uttering IRL. Though I guess it has always been possible to send your thoughts to someone in a letter and every medium may be subject to abuse in the wrong hands, MSN meant it was possible to insult and reject someone, from a distance with veritable ease.

I remained an MSN-user into my university years. I no-longer had the lengthy group chats laced with moving GIFs and exclamation marks, but I still used it on a daily basis to chat to others. I frequently felt frustrated that these interactions, with their stilted structure and invented spellings, seemed to be replacing my real-life conversations. Whilst the IMs provided some contact with others, it just wasn’t satisfying. The final straw came when a rather cowardly ex-partner decided to use the medium to end our relationship. I felt humiliated that he hadn’t even felt I was worth telephoning and felt appalled at how easily and callously he could instigate the break-up. At that point I decided I was done with MSN. If I didn’t have a continual presence on these platforms, others would be forced to have conversations with me in real life. I was sick of people hiding behind their computers and delivering words they wouldn’t dare to say to my face. Uninstall.

I have been MSN-abstinent for over 4 years now, and I don’t miss it. When I saw that this March, Microsoft plans to close the platform for good, it made me wonder if others have shared my frustrations with instant messaging. I have Facebook and Skype and will use the IM-services on these, but like to keep them to a minimum. , I appreciate that my irritations lie more with the way others choose to use messenger services, rather than the service itself, and It’s quite possible that younger generations use these programs much in the way that mine used MSN. Others before me have lamented how, in an age where communication so is easily facilitated by the internet, we lose something of the depth and intimacy that a telephone call, hand-written letter or long face-to-face chat bestow. I think when it becomes so easy to ‘keep in touch’ with someone by posting on their wall, dropping them a chat message etc, you can build up a false sense of maintaining a relationship, when in reality it wilts in the absence of more genuine contact.

MSN gave me, and millions of other awkward teenagers, a platform to speak and reach out to others, and it shaped the relationships we formed with each other (though not always for the better). Undoubtedly there will be some who will mourn it’s loss, but there are still many methods (online and otherwise) to keep in touch. Newer programs such as Skype enable families spread across the globe to maintain more regular contact, so it could be argued that it is significantly adding to and improving relationships. Personally think online communication does have the capacity to be personal and meaningful, when it’s used thoughtfully and with due time and consideration, rather than in a lazier manner.