Towards a Greater Choice of Personal Title

Susan (F224)


Issue 18
Summer 2002

I was very interested to hear Christie Elan-Cane's presentation The Fallacy of the Myth of Gender(1) at the Gendys Conference 2000 and was pleased to be able to re-read this at leisure when I received the Conference Report. The content was filed away at the back of my mind but has, over the past year, taken on an increasing importance for me since, although I now live a significant part of my life in my chosen role, I have not yet transitioned. Christie's article in the autumn 2001 journal merely added fuel to the curiosity. I would be very interested to hear an update of Christie's progress with the non-gendered role and the personal title. Also, a reminder of Christie's method of 'beating the system' would be most welcome.

I do have one question, though, which perhaps Christie could answer for me. How does one refer to a non-gendered person in the third person? For male, it's him and for female, her, but I now seem to have more questions than answers!

My sight is quite precarious (my choice of word) and could fail me at any time and so the offer of early retirement in October 2001 seemed too good to refuse. Not only has it removed the threat of unexpected retirement due to ill health, it has also enabled me to stabilise my finances and move to an area where I can come and go with greatly increased freedom and ease. In order to facilitate this new lifestyle, I have set about ensuring that cheques, cards and so on have a unisex appearance. This I have achieved with varying degrees of success.

Just how long did it take 'Society' to cave in and allow women to adopt the title 'Ms'? 30 years, perhaps? I still find that most application forms, order forms and the like only give a choice of Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms. How about Dr or Rev or even NOTHING? That's rarely allowed because it upsets the 'computer system' and will not validate.

I had a choice of title for my Bank of Scotland application and chose 'Pr' (for Person - Thank You Christie, although perhaps I should have put 'Per'!) so they assumed I meant 'Dr' (for Doctor, which I'm not) so now I'm known to them as 'Dr Withers' with no gender, which is very interesting. Doctor of what, I've no idea, but they clearly have not checked that I have a Doctorate or am a registered physician. And they never did ask for my gender! If 1 in 2000 people are intersex to some degree or another, does it not behove society to at least have some flexibility? Although not a Scot, I have not a little admiration for the uncomplicated way in which Scottish businesses of my acquaintance conduct their relationships with customers.

Whilst going through the tortuous process of moving house, I had accounts at two Halifax branches in different towns. I asked for the gender identifier to be removed from my cheques and cards. One said, "We can't do that," but did, and the other said, "Certainly, no problem" and did.

Goldfish (Master card) had a box on their application form "please indicate exactly how you would like your name displayed on the card(s)". I did and they did. How enlightened! Then I asked the Halifax for a Visa card. When asked for a title I said, 'None'. I then tried 'Pr' but The Computer didn't like that. So we went through the whole rigmarole again. Just when I thought that we were making progress. At least the card turned up without gender identifier and so all my Halifax cards (and my Amex) merely bear the initial and surname. The lady who dealt with my Visa application was helpfulness and discretion personified but even she could not 'beat the system'. When it came to the field on the screen marked 'sex' (not gender, you will note) there were only the usual two options (of course) and these would not compute with an inappropriate title. I would have loved to confuse the poor machine with 'None' and 'Pr' but there was no hope of that. If, in response to the question 'sex', we all answered 'Yes, please!' perhaps someone then might take action!

Sadly, the group which includes Evans, Topshop, Debenhams and several others don't even get a sniff of a brownie point. Despite having been told that I want the store card to bear initial and surname only (and why), Evans went ahead and printed the whole works (title, forename and surname) on it. I had to present my Switch card to open the account and the assistant asked, "What is the title on the card, Mrs or Miss?" I said, "None" but that wasn't good enough. Then I said, "Mr" which caused a raised eyebrow! Sadly, this is one retail group which will never again benefit from my buying power.

There really is no need for most organisations to be concerned about the gender (or sex) of a 'customer'. I can understand a health authority wanting to know for reasons of resource allocation and screening, also a local authority wanting statistical information for demographic reasons. Most other organisations merely gather information so as to sell it to others. Lists of names and addresses are regularly bought and sold and solely for the dubious purpose of churning out more junk mail to encourage us to part with our hard earned pennies in return for something we don't need or which doesn't perform to specification. I know that this happens because errors in one mailing will be replicated in several others. To test this theory, I have, occasionally and deliberately, incorrectly completed mailing coupons and not been at all surprised when targeted by means of inaccurate addressing. Sometimes, desperate marketing agents have even been know to make up addresses or even to use obvious gibberish. Taken to the extreme, how long will it be before an application will be refused because it does not contain previously validated details of your car or the breakfast cereal that you use.

"Corn Flakes, Bran Flakes or Muesli?"

"Er, none, actually."

"Sorry, that does not compute: shall we try again?"

Western society has a very limited vocabulary with which to describe things. The Romans were intelligent enough to accept that some things were neuter. Surely we have evolved backwards? After all, it has only taken us 2,000 years to 'invent' central heating! The root causes of the present limited title situation appear to be twofold. Firstly there is the so-called 'bible-based' patriarchal society structure that holds that "if it's not male it's female, and if it's not female it doesn't exist". Secondly, there is the computer, that glorified adding machine, usually run by an over-priced virus called an operating system and programmed by a myopic creature of limited imagination (I was a computer programmer and system designer for several years!).

As a friend has recently so succinctly pointed out, "only the bits that itch the most will get scratched", so it will be a long and tortuous road to persuading our 'computer boffins' to inject a little flexibility into the ubiquitous application form. Boycotting the process will clearly change nothing so it falls to us to try and 'encourage' change. I wonder what my 'lone voice crying in the wilderness' can achieve but, listening to Christie, who has clearly successfully eroded part of the system by simply not taking 'No' for an answer, I must take my courage in both hands and do likewise. Perhaps it is again time to put down our foot with a firm hand and do the application form equivalent of 'industrial inaction'.

1. Elan-Cane, C., (2000), The Fallacy of the Myth of Gender, GENDYS 2k, The Sixth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester, England.
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