How to use non-binary forms of address on your website

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On June 21, 2022, the Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, ruled in a case against Deutsche Bahn that mandating "Mr." or "Ms." discriminates against non-binary people. This form of discrimination is not permissible according to Germany's AGG (Equal Treatment Act).

Find out here what this groundbreaking ruling means for online stores, websites, newsletters and other digital product and services.

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What is the ruling about?

A non-binary trans person filed a lawsuit because Deutsche Bahn requires customers to choose binary form of address, i.e. "Mr." or "Ms.", when purchasing tickets online. The Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht) in Frankfurt am Main has now ruled on appeal that this discriminates against non-binary persons under Germany's Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeine Gleichhandlungsgesetzt). Effective January 1, 2023, Deutsche Bahn must stop from requiring non-binary people using the company's services to choose between the titles "Mr." or "Ms."

Effect immediately, the railway must refrain from addressing the non-binary plaintiff incorrectly (with a gendered form of address) when issuing tickets, in communication from customer service, and in advertising. This also applies to any personal data Deutsche Bahn has stored.

Furthermore, Deutsche Bahn must pay the plaintiff compensation in the amount of € 1,000.

What this means for your website or online store

In principle, there is now clarity that non-binary people may not be discriminated against and excluded from use by the mandatory selection of the salutations "Mr." or "Ms.". Accordingly, it is now easier to claim this right.

If you collect and use salutations, e.g.

- in the checkout in your store
- in the newsletter registration
- in the profile creation or in the settings
- in the issuing of tickets or cards
- in the application process
- in the communication with your customers or employees
- in the personnel software or in the payroll

you should now check this and make sure that this is done and People of all genders included be.

How do I keep track of titles and forms of address legally and inclusively?

The two most common solutions for continuing to collect titles and salutations are as follows:

1. Add options like Mx., no title, or gender-neutral salutations
In addition to common titles like "Mr." & "Ms.", include options like Mx., no title, or gender-neutral salutation.

People who select "no title" will be addressed in a gender-neutral way, like "Hello Firstname Lastname" or "Hi Firstname." 

Important 1: Do not offer "divers," "diverse" or "non-binary" as an option, because these are not forms of address, they are gender options. After all, you don't write "Greetings male Alex Ingabire" or "Good day female Alex Ingabire".

Important 2: If a person selects "gender-neutral salutation", do not address the person as "Dear Ms./Mr. Alex Ingabire". This still uses binary forms of address, is not gender-neutral, and does not work for most non-binary people.

2. Add a text input field
This is the most inclusive option, as it allows each person to share exactly how they want to be addressed in an (additional) open text input field. They can enter a preferred salutation or honorific, like "Dear Passenger Firstname Lastname" or “Mx. Firstname.”
Of course, customers can use this to add traditional titles like "Dear Professor" or "Sir". It should still be possible to leave the field blank so that no specific form of address is used. An open text field also gives people the opportunity to choose unfamiliar forms of address, such as "Dear Person".

The real secret: Don't collect or use gendered titles at all
If you don’t collect or use any gendered forms of address, you won’t discriminate against anyone. At first it may feel a bit strange and some people may react initially "But we need that because XYZ...!". But in fact, in almost all situations and contexts, we can get by without a specific form of address. This can reduce complexity in IT systems and reduce the amount of data stored, which is entirely in line with the data frugality and data minimization of GDPR.

Do you need implementing this? Fairlanguage has already worked with several companies and large organizations like the city of Kiel to develop inclusive and legally compliant processes around titles and forms of address.

Don't hesitate to get in touch.

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