How To Ask About Gender On Forms, Or, “Transgender” Is Not My Gender Identity

Three little boxes blink at me, a puzzle with no solution. Gender: Male, Female, Transgender. How am I supposed to answer this question? I can only choose one option. I could say that I am male–after all, I am. Yet it feels weird to leave the “transgender” box unchecked, perhaps suggesting to whoever is on the other side of this form that there are no trans people here. On the other hand, it seems bizarre and a bit offensive to check “transgender” at the expense of “male,” as if being trans totally defines me, as if I am not a man.

Another form I recently faced was even stranger. Gender: Male, Female, Trans-Male, Trans-Female, Other. What the hell? My gender is not “trans-male.” My gender is male; I am also a human being who is trans.

I appreciate that people are trying to acknowledge that trans people exist. I do not appreciate that doing so apparently means ignoring my actual gender as a trans person. Kinda defeats the whole purpose.

I think many people suffer a basic confusion about trans identity. Transgender is an umbrella term that shelters many people. What we all have in common is a gender identity and/or expression that is different from the sex we were assigned at birth. “Transgender” does not denote a person’s gender, per se–rather it describes the relationship between their gender and their society.

Some trans people are non-binary, meaning neither men nor women. Non-binary folks may describe their genders as transgender or genderqueer, or they may use some other term. Most trans people are men or women. We describe our genders as either male or female. This means that some people under the trans umbrella describe themselves as transgender, full stop–but most describe themselves as some gender and transgender.

When forms ask for a sex/gender, they should accommodate everybody. When I am faced with forms that don’t allow me to describe myself, I simply stop filling them out, if I can. When I can’t–such as forms for school and work–I list myself as male. I would prefer, however, to describe myself fully. In the case of forms for my university, for example, I worry that flaws in this question could affect services for transgender students.

I can think of a bunch of ways to solve this conundrum. For now, I will confine myself to one very simple solution, which, I think, accommodates all parties. The gender question should include the options male, female, transgender and other (write-in), and respondents should be allowed to check all that apply.

Give it a try!

Readers–does this solution accommodate your gender identity? How would you ask the gender question?

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14 comments

  1. Meike

    Personally I’d leave a blank space and say “write in your gender identity here”, and provide examples in parentheses. Open-ended is better, I think.

    • rimonim

      Thanks for sharing your answer, Meike! From a gender theory standpoint, I totally agree. From a data collection standpoint, however, open-ended questions may make it extremely cumbersome to get accurate numbers, and may actually give respondents less agency than check-boxes. If you’re trying to, say, decide how many male, female and gender-neutral restrooms you need in your facility, a human would have to individually read every open-ended response and decide whether the people who wrote female, girl, lady, woman, chick, trans female, queer femme, etc. are the same gender or different genders. In other words, forcing the write-ins into a few gender categories after the fact–and quite possibly mis-categorizing some people.

      If open-ended questions are compatible with the purpose of the form, however, I think it’s a great idea.

      • Meike

        That’s true, forgot about that aspect. Hmm, I’d have to give that more thought, then.

  2. hiddeninyoursoul

    If the form is online, they could do basically the same thing that Facebook did. Therefore, in your example of restrooms, they could be easily sorted into categories for the purpose of determining how many of each type to establish. If it’s paper, then it’s kind of hard.

    On a side note, I feel like I have this same problem when answering race/ethnicity questions of forms. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to accurately describe yourself, especially for those that are mixed with a few different things.

    • rimonim

      Totally hear you on the race/ethnicity question. It’s just as bad. May I ask how you describe your race/ethnicity? Just curious–people’s identities & the race/ethnicity question is a pet interest of mine. I always have trouble with it too (I’m a Sephardic Jew of European & Middle Eastern ancestry).

      • hiddeninyoursoul

        On my mom’s side, there’s Portuguese and Irish, and the only description of my dad I have is “he’s black.” It still makes filling out forms hard because most people just think I’m white. I usually just put “other” or “mixed.”

  3. Jamie Ray

    This is a perpetual problem for me. My basic feeling is that if it is not necessary to know either the sex or the gender (or gender expression) of the person, leave the question out! Most of the time it isn’t necessary.
    Most people still do not understand the difference between sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual identity. It takes a complex set of questions to answer it accurately.
    The one place I do not object to putting down a lot of information is on medical forms, because a simple M or F can be misleading or dangerous when it comes to drugs or treatment. The responsibility of explaining/raising any medical issues related to being transgender should not be on the patient but should be easy to note on the form.
    To be polite, you can ask me how I prefer to be addressed and what pronouns I use with the understanding that some things may be “inconsistent” with others.

    • rimonim

      You are very right that it often isn’t necessary at all. Also hear you on the medical forms. I actually wish medical forms asked for more info–all the ones I’ve filled out just say, Sex: Male/Female. I know that somewhere in my chart it says, “Transsexualism with an unspecified sexual history”–leading the occasional doctor to guess I am transitioning to female.

  4. standgale

    I tried filling in the form, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to put under other.

    My general feeling is that most of the time people ask for gender but don’t actually need gender at all – for example at my current work where we survey students as to what kind of personal IT devices and requirements they have. Does it actually help to know how many female students have an iphone? Will we provide special iphone services in the bathroom?
    In previous years we had male/female/other, but they removed “other” last year for some reason. Interestingly, the percentage that ticked “other” in the last year it was available was very close to the percentage that ticked both or neither or wrote their own response when other wasn’t available – around 1.5% I think.

    Sometimes people ask for gender when they mean something else. For example, for a customer database at a running shoe store – do you want to know what gender they are, or do you actually want to know whether they wear men’s or women’s shoes? Most of the time this will be match up but not always. What if you should be sending information about your men’s shoe sale to a woman with large feet who wears men’s shoes, but you obviously have her down as female and so you only send her the female shoe catalogues. Or however sports shoe marketing works. (we made the software).

    • rimonim

      Great point that the gender question is often unnecessary or just a proxy for something else. It seems like people irresistibly want to ask for a gender even when it really shouldn’t matter. And there is of course a strong assumption that with that one question, you can guess almost everything about someone.

  5. standgale

    By the way, I think it was a good and clever idea to include an actual survey to try – theory and practice are not always the same thing. I thought maybe I knew what to put, but when it came to actually doing it, it turned out that I didn’t.

  6. Iz

    I always put “Other” for race/ethnicity… or I don’t fill it out. And while I usually just check “female,” I found using your form to be much more gratifying.

  7. Pingback: 5 Ways For Trans People To Deal With The Gender Question | Today I Am A Man

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