Database coding and gender/sexual orientation bias

I was recently speaking with the team at Oregon United for Marriage, and I had a handout that referred to "spouses" (when I really should have said "partners"), and boy, was that embarrassing!  (It would have been unfortunate in any setting, but I'm not so sure I would have apprehended my bias as readily were I not speaking to a group dedicated to marriage equality.)  This reference arose from development database lingo, where partners are usually labeled as "spouses". As an example, one development database I managed had multiple relationships one could use to relate people to one another, including one called "spouse," and another called "significant other".  The "spouse" relationship had a lot more bells and whistles associated with it, like the ability to automatically associate soft credit giving and to "household" donors for reporting and mailing purposes.  So in our shop, I changed our procedure so that we used the "spouse" relationship to join the records of any significantly committed life partners, regardless of sex.

When we first started using this function to capture same-sex partner relationships, the "spouse" designation threw off some folks, and there were some questions about whether it was appropriate to use this function to capture these relationships.  It's interesting how much a label can lead us to preconceptions... and lead us down the path of poor donor stewardship.  Just because a particular state is unwilling to recognize a partnership as a marriage, does that mean that we should follow suit, simply because our databases use outdated language?  I believe firmly that we should treat our donors as they would wish to be treated.  (And -- there are plenty of heterosexual partners out there who choose not to legally marry for various reasons; they too often wish to be treated as a partnership regardless of legal documents.)

One concern that was raised was around tax receipting: if the partners aren't legally married, then is it a problem to issue a joint tax receipt?  My counter: what if a heterosexual couple is filing separate taxes?  Or what if we are just assuming a heterosexual couple is legally married?  Do we need to ask to see marriage paperwork before we will join them as spouses in our database?  We can't and don't want to know each couple's individual tax situation; that is between them and their accountant.

On a similar and more complicated note, consider another common database field: "gender".  One nonprofit I was at implemented an online donor portal, which included the ability to select gender.  It came preset with "male" and "female".  We quickly decided to hide that field from view, as collecting gender data was less important than being inclusive of trans* individuals.

It's common for organizations to do database audits where title (Mr./Ms./etc.) is reconciled with the gender field, i.e. if someone is marked as "female" in the database, then the audit will make sure that the title is not "Mr."  But what if that individual entered your database system with a female gender and "Ms." title, but then subsequently makes a donation and identifies their title as "Mr."?  It's very possible that they are communicating an important preference to your organization, one which might get overwritten by the mindless logic of a database audit.  How to get around this?  Ensure that you track the source of updates -- if the constituent themselves has provided an updated title, then exempt it from updating.

But what if they made a typo?  Most importantly: don't assume anything.   If you are in doubt, consider sending your constituent a follow-up postcard or email asking them to confirm their name, address and other contact info (note: please don't ask them to confirm their gender).  That way, you can be assured that they do intend to be addressed as "Mr." without making guesses.

For more etiquette suggestions on interacting with trans* individuals, please see this excellent blog post.

Amanda Jarman1 Comment