Many contact RFSL and ask for advice about how they should ask about gender in surveys to include trans people and avoid offending someone. To construct good surveys is hard and questions about gender and trans can be sensitive for different reasons. To ask in a good way can determine if you get answers to your survey or not.
Why ask about gender?
Start by questioning why you want to ask about gender and what you really mean by that question. The question is often asked routinely in surveys and if you aren’t going to use the answers to that question for something in particular, you might not need to ask about gender at all. Many times, however, it is relevant and important to ask about gender and also about trans experience, for example to find out how many men or women have answered the survey or if trans people’s experiences of what you’re examining are different from cis people’s.
Different meanings of gender
The term “gender” can mean many things. It can mean legal gender, i.e. what is stated in your identification documents and that can be discerned by the next to last digit in Swedish social security numbers. Everyone who is in the Swedish population register are registered either as legal male or legal female. If you need to know the legal gender you can ask for that specifically. Do explain why the question is made.
Be aware that the legal gender doesn’t always correspond with how someone is perceived by others or what gender the person identify as. A person who lives as, and by others is read as a man, can have the legal gender woman and vice versa.
Often the most important and most relevant meaning of the term gender is gender identity, i.e. the gender you feel you are. There are many ways to define your gender apart from man and woman, even if these two are the most common gender identities. You can name and list different ways of identifying your gender as alternatives in your survey but since they are so many and so few people would choose one of them it would make both the survey and the analysis of the answers overly complicated. Instead you could ask in this way:
What gender are you? With gender we mean gender identity, i.e. the gender you feel like.
- Other alternative
- Don’t want to answer
We recommend that you ask the question in this way, with “other alternative”, “unsure” and “don’t want to answer” as separate alternatives not to risk adding to the preconception that people that don’t view themselves as (only) man or woman are confused. An “other alternative” and “unsure” can be combined during the analysis.
Another possibility is to let the question about gender be a free text question where the respondents themselves get to formulate their answer to the question freely and without ready made options. However this is usually more complicated to analyze.
To ask how a person’s body looks and feels, or which body parts a person was born with, is very private and rarely relevant. Thus RFSL generally recommends not asking questions about that. In some cases, however, it can be important to ask about a person’s genitalia, for example when it comes to healthcare or research specifically related to the genitals’ appearance and function. In those cases we recommend that you explain why the question is asked. It’s also important that the questions are then formulated so that everybody can answer them. That means that you clearly state that the question is about the gender identity or about the genitals’ appearance and function. For example men should be able to fill in surveys about gynecological care and women should be able to answer questions about prostate problems.
To ask about trans experience
If you want to know if the person that’s answered the survey is a trans person or not we generally recommend that that question is separated from the question about gender since “trans” isn’t a gender. Moreover many trans people are either male or female. After you’ve asked about gender you can ask this question:
Are you or do you have experience of being a trans person?
- Don’t know/don’t want to answer
Ask relevant questions
Since there are different aspects of the term gender the questions that you need to ask might differ depending on your purpose with the survey. for example how you’re perceived by others or what/which pronouns you’re comfortable with. Most often, gender identity and possible trans experience are the most relevant aspects to ask about. Other aspects of gender – such as how one is perceived by others, what one’s genital looks like, one’s legal gender, or what/which pronouns one prefers – is rarely relevant to ask about. RFSL recommends that you only ask for information that’s truly relevant in the context. Also be aware that the pronoun or pronouns a person uses doesn’t have to say anything about their gender identity.
Answering inclination and anonymous answers
People who feel that the survey isn’t directed at them, for example because there are only two alternatives for the question of gender, are less likely to complete the survey. Being able to answer anonymously can also be a precondition for wanting to answer. But the anonymity might be an illusion. For example a student in a classroom can easily see that they are the only one in the class who is openly trans, and that therefore their answers won’t be anonymous if they answer the question about being trans in a survey that’s only directed at the class. This has ti be taken into consideration when analyzing the surveys but also when presenting the results to the group in question.