No sex please, I’m neutral

In an extreme version of single-sourcing, Australian officials issued an immigration certificate with the Gender field listed as not specified.

The document was issued to immigrant Norrie May-Welby, who was born a man but later had a sex change operation. The procedure included taking female hormones, but after several years, this person stopped taking the medicine and decided to become a “gender-neutral”. “The concepts of man or woman don’t fit me,” he said.

Oops – I mean she said… I mean s/he said. (Damn these restrictive pronouns!)

A few points on this rather delicate topic.

1. Do the sex and gender fields of all government forms need to be revised to include “none of the above”?

2. If this answer to the above is “no”, how does one handle rare documentation cases such as these?

Technical communication ideally is as digital as the computer file itself. That is, every topic, concept, state and procedure is clearly defined with no ambiguities. True or false. 1 or 0. Binary or death.

Now, the best way to avoid confusion is to explicitly define your terms. All objects, actions and items must be clearly described using non-technical words which themselves need no further definition or explanation. Otherwise you end up with sentences like this:

To folicate the nefigog, you need to parrelify the actrawan.

Unfortunately, uncertainties and confusion sometimes occur. Or to put it more succinctly – sh-t happens. What then?

It all depends on the dreaded probability factor, which is:

A. the number of users who may encounter this situation
B. the number of times they might experience it

If this factor is high, then it indicates a flaw in the design of the product itself. If the usability and repair budgets are exhausted, and there will be no fix forthcoming, it falls upon the shoulders of the lowly technical communicator to openly document this heinous behaviour, probably in a number of places, for example: the ReadMe, the User Guide, the Install Guide, and so on.

If this factor is low, the exception can still be documented, but less frequently. For example, in the aforementioned “gender neutral” problem, given the few times this will occur, I would add a brief note to the field description, something like:

Select a Gender: M for Male, F for Female, O for Other.

Note: If you select Other, you can enter more detailed description, because we’re really curious to know just what the hell you are.


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