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Posted on December 1st, 2008 by Matthew Sparkes

Gay marriage and the Y2Gay bug

Unsurprisingly, Holland was the first country to legalise gay marriage, all the way back in 2001. Since then, another six countries have taken the plunge, and there are plenty more sitting on the fence (but at least facing the right way) by allowing “civil partnerships”, or some other stupidly-named approximation of holy matrimony.

Sure, there have been some backward steps, too – such as the outrageous display of bigotry that was California’s Proposition 8 – but on the whole, things are getting better. Personally, the prospect of marriage in any form is terrifying, but if it’s available at all, then it should be available to all.

Besides narrow-minded folk, there is another group of people that may have a problem with the whole thing: database designers. I don’t mean to imply that they’re homophobic (although I can’t guarantee that some aren’t), but only that gay marriage is going to cause them a lot of headaches.

Across the world there are millions of databases, programs and online forms that cannot even comprehend the possibility that a man could marry a man, or that a woman could marry a woman. It simply does not compute, and it’s being called the Y2Gay bug.

“To be blunt, the systems aren’t set up to handle it,” says database engineer Sam Hughes in a wonderfully insightful blog post.

“The paper forms have a space for the husband’s name and a space for the wife’s name. Married people carefully enter their details in block capitals and post the forms off to depressed paper-pushers who then type that information into software front-ends whose forms are laid out and named in precisely the same fashion. And then they hit “submit” and the information is filed away electronically in databases which simply keel over or belch integrity errors when presented with something so profound as a man and another man who love each other enough to want to file joint tax returns.”

Hughes goes on to suggest a number of possible fixes, many of which come with their own, unique problems. The field is a young one, and there a lot of unsolved problems – or, at least, ones that are awaiting a sensible solution.

“Perhaps the simplest solution would be to ban marriage outright. Or, better yet, to declare everybody as married to everybody else. But then what would the database engineers do all day?”

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