Members of the Harvard Computer Club just wanted to have a little fun for Valentine’s Day, so they created a system called “Datamatch’ that would help students find companions for the holiday. But unfortunately for the HCC, they included only two genders in Datamatch’s options—and now they’re in big trouble.
Twenty six members of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council signed a letter admonishing the dastardly programmers for not including other genders (including “genderqueer” and “non gender-conforming”) in their list of options.
Instead, Datamatch simply had a small box in the profile allowing students to elaborate on their sexual identification and preferences, if they first selected either “male” or “female.”
Students said that such a setup was insufficient because it implied that the “gender binary” was “normal.” “Calling gender non-conformity or any gender non-binary identity ‘extra’ is sort of tactless nomenclature,” one student told the Harvard Crimson.
Harvard’s BGLTQ+ Caucus chair, Nicholas Whittaker, presented the letter. “I’m proposing an undersigned letter, a statement of support with the gender non-conforming and gender queer community after Datamatch implicitly excluded them from the experience,” Whittaker said during a meeting on the subject Sunday. “The idea of it being romantic does not necessitate the idea that it be stuck upon strict gender bearings.”
They say they understand how much work went into the Valentine’s Datamatch program—which is a tradition for the Computer Club dating back to the mid-90s—but that the offense was so dire that if HCC didn’t commit to changing the algorithm next year, Whittaker’s group would consider making it a condition of their continued funding.
HCC says that, for their part, they will commit to making the program, which already serves more than 4,000 Harvard students, more inclusive next year.
They have already proposed a “modified system” for next year’s Valentine’s event, and according to one HCC member’s Facebook post, they are trying to work with the UC to make it as nuanced as possible, so as to accommodate all students, of all genders.
The task may be difficult. As Kuang points out, in order to create matches, the program has to separate users into specific categories and then compare the data they input into the system. Without some categories, the program simply won’t work —but it’s also impossible to make enough categories to encompass everyone of every gender, particularly those whose gender is highly individualized.
If you’re wondering why the program was attacked for its gender-based problems and not its clear contribution to campus rape culture, well, that’s next on the list. In addition to the gender reconfiguration, students are asking that Datamatch be used to facilitate “strictly platonic” pairings only.
They just didn’t happen to put that in the letter.