Not exactly congressional action, but still

(Originally posted to Watsons-Solarpunk)

Okay so I know this is a small thing but it’s an example of what writing congresspeople can do. (U.S. politics post.)

I live in New Hampshire, so one of my senators is Jeanne Shaheen. I was writing a message to her about something (been doing that a lot lately, can’t remember which specific awful thing I wanted her to oppose was) and I discovered that the form had a mandatory box for the submitter’s title – Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.

All the options were either gendered or were titles related to an earned position, so in order to send Senator Shaheen a message, I had to deliberately misgender myself.

That kind of thing pisses me off – and when I say it pisses me off, I mean more often than not I’ll refuse to fill out a form rather than go along with it. It makes me really uncomfortable and I don’t like working with places that do it.

But Senator Shaheen is generally pro-LGBT+, so I figured there was as good a chance as not that it was an honest mistake. I gritted my teeth, and wrote a second message – in which I explained the problem, and pointed out that I’m very likely not the only nonbinary person in the senator’s constituency whose voice, and support, they’re risking losing by leaving that emotional speedbump in place.

What I asked for was not additional options, but just the ability to leave that totally unnecessary box blank. I told them I hoped I was putting the issue on their radar, but in the meantime they could implement an improvement for trivial effort with no real risk of pushback immediately.

A couple days ago I got an email from one of Senator Shaheen’s staffers, saying that I was the first person to raise the issue, and that he had forwarded the issue to their website manager. As of the email, the message had reached their developer that they wanted this change made. I’ve been checking, and as of today, her feedback form no longer marks the Title box as mandatory.

Altogether this took like a week. A week, and a single email, because I was apparently the first person to bring it up. 

This is a tiny change, but it’s a tiny change that matters, pretty much definitely, to people other than me. It means the filters that are implicitly in place to contact Senator Shaheen are now a little less normative. 

There are hundreds or thousands of tiny things like this, in government, that form these implicit filters. They dishearten and discourage variously marginalized people who try to participate, before they can even get as far as speaking their message aloud. 

They’re often there not because the politicians want them there, but because they, and their staff, can’t see them. (Originally they were definitely there because politicians wanted them – see Jim Crow – but now a lot of the time they’re just still-there-because-nobody-tore-them-out-yet.) For one thing, there’s a fair chance there are no openly nongender people working in Jeanne Shaheen’s office. For another, they don’t have to use the form on the website if they want to get a message to the senator. 

Even if a politician is doing an awesome job of surrounding themselves with people with diverse perspectives and insights, that doesn’t mean each of those people is going to individually comb through everything that’s done in their office. If there are nongender staffers working for Senator Shaheen, I’m guessing they didn’t happen to be the ones who built the website.

We have an ability, and a right, to tell our representatives how to hear our voices. Wherever it’s a quick fix like this one, we ought to see those changes just about as soon as they know about them. If it’s a bigger change, like something more complicated than telling a developer to, like, remove a line of code, we should at least bring it to their attention, so that it makes it onto a list somewhere in the office. 

Maybe like a “Problems for an intern to solve when there isn’t work to give them” list. Maybe a “Catalogue of reasons our constituents’ feedback is disproportionately white, cis, straight, and over 40.” 

We may be living in a broken house on the verge of being condemned, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to start setting doors right on their hinges. (To over-extend the metaphor, in US squatter’s rights law, one of the criteria for property defaulting to the squatter is that they’ve made improvements to it.)

Remember: these aren’t the mechanics that are keeping everyone out. Just the marginalized. And many politicians and politicians’ staffs would just as soon remove them, if they knew where to find them all.