The inappropriate question my school bookstore insists on asking

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

It's that time of year again.

When schools send out their book lists for next year, and enthusiastic and earnest parents (me at the end of 2020), get their orders in early so we don't have to spend two hours in a line in the January heat with no air conditioning the week before school goes back (me at the start of 2020).

I was pretty happy with myself for being this organised for my two primary school kids, but I was quickly stopped in my tracks by one question on the bookstore website.

The simple order form looked a bit like this:

  • Student name:
  • Year level:
  • Gender:
  • Address:

All of the questions were marked with an asterisk, indicating they were mandatory.

And sure, I could understand why someone supplying books for my children would want to know their name, address and year level. They curate book packs for each year level, and it sure does help if they know who they're sending them to, and where they need to go.

But gender? Why do they need to know my child's gender to send them some books?

My initial fear that they wanted to give my daughter a book on sewing buttons and not speaking too loudly, and my son a book on wrestling bears and enjoying the pay gap was unfounded when I inspected further.


There were no books that showed any gender difference.

So why even ask?

Photo: The form Carolyn Tate was asked to fill out for her son's school books

Photo: The form Carolyn Tate was asked to fill out to order her children's school books

Sure, to many it is a throw-away question. You might be wondering why I'd even care. I mean, just tick the box and move on, right?

But there's a bigger issue here. Why are we asking young children to label themselves at this early age? And why are we even asking something that is no business of ours at all, when it has no bearing on the ability to supply a simple product or service?

As well as my two primary aged children, I also have a teenager who is transgender.

I've seen him struggle with simple questions like this. It turns filling out a simple form into an arduous and sometimes emotional task.

Sometimes they ask about your sex, and sometimes about your gender – which are two different things.

One is a biological question, while the other is about social identity. And how my son might answer on a medical form is different from how he might answer on a bookshop form (although he really shouldn't have to answer it for a bookshop at all – do I have to share my personal information with the local smoothie bar?).

And my son is lucky enough to be clear about his gender now, but there was a time he was still working it out. And let's not forget there are also people who don't identify as male or female.

Non-binary and genderqueer advocate Dr J Harrison sums it up well with this analogy:

"Imagine what it is like not to be able to put the right information down. It's like you're a cat, and the options are dog and penguin – there is not only no option to identify as yourself, the two options you're given don't reflect you at all."

All of this stress because you need to buy some books.

As an adult, I can see this is an old question still hanging around that nobody has thought to review in a while. It's irrelevant, and although I'm sure the bookshop means no harm, they really need to remove it from the form.

But children don't have that kind of clear perspective. What they see when they are faced with questions like that is that there are two options: male or female. Those options are clear and unwavering, and you really should know which one you are.

If you don't, or if you don't fit into those boxes, you are problematic. You can't fill in a simple form without having to pretend you are someone different from who you are.

There is something wrong with you.

So yes, it's just a simple form, and my younger two children can easily tick a box without thinking at this point. But that's not the case for all kids filling out that form.

Some might already know their sex and gender don't match up, and some might be questioning. But no matter where they are in their gender identity, it's no business of any bookshop, that's for sure.

You might think I'm banging on about nothing, and that this is political correctness gone mad, but I ask you to consider this: if removing that question could help a child feel less alone and less rejected by society, and the question is entirely irrelevant to everyone else, what possible harm is there in removing it?

It's a small change that can have a big impact, and as Dr J Harrison says, "If you're a cat in a dog and penguin world, being able to say you are a cat is an unexpected delight."