Recently, I’ve seen twice with both a crown agency here in British Columbia (TransLink) and with Statistics Canada incorrectly interpret how to ask someone about their gender. It was really annoying and in one of the cases I had complained with them replying “we’ll consider this for the future”.
As a way to be constructive here, I’ve decided to write my own guide on how to ask someone if you absolutely must know what their gender is.
Before I proceed, I’ll need to make some things clear. Firstly, this is not a definitive guide and I also fall within the gender binary. This means that my views are based on my interpretation of gender and may not necessarily reflect those who also not cisgender. If you find something wrong with my approach, I am all ears but just to point out that I am transgender myself in case you’re unsure.
What did they do wrong?
A week ago, I received a letter from StatCan about a travel survey. Considering that I do happen to travel quite a bit, I was intersted in participating. Unlike a census, this was not mandatory so if I opted to not do as requested, it would be no big deal despite them stating they might contact me if I don’t reply in a timely manner.
It started off by asking some pretty basic questions about whether or not I have travelled in the past month both inside and outside of Canada. None of these questions were at all problematic, but then we got to the part asking about personal information.
This question is wholly unnecessary and is transphobic; my birth certificate’s details at my time of birth are irrelevant.
Then we move on to TransLink: this wasn’t by me but was posted in a local Facebook group for those who want to share memes about the transit agency (ELMTOT). They were engaging in a survey for improving transit services and opted to ask about the person’s gender as evident here:
The mistake TransLink made here is that they assumed that being transgender was a gender itself. There are trans men, trans women, non-binary, agender, genderqueer, and genderfluid just to name a few and these types of people all fall under the transgender umbrella. The opposite of trans is cis and that encompasses the gender binary–so a cis male or cis man or a cis female or cis woman.
Someone who is a transgender woman might be okay with selecting “female” but they will not want to select “transgender” as their gender in the vast majority of cases.
Just because you “[consulted] various groups” does not automatically mean that you got any of this correct.
Do you really need to know their gender?
More often than not, you probably don’t need to know if someone is a woman, non-binary, agender, or a man. Is this for a message board? Is this for a survey like above? What is it for and how important is it to know what they are? Can you at the very minimum not make it so they have to tell you?
StatCan’s reasons for asking about gender is fairly straightforward: they want to know how travel affects Canadians within and outside of Canada. Being that Canadian passports recently allowed for non-binary markers, it makes sense for the government to want to know more about how men and women are affected while travelling and perhaps how it skews different if at all for transgender persons.
This is in my eyes a reasonable request. It wasn’t wrong of them to ask for my gender, but then it got really problematic: why does it matter what sex I had assigned to me at birth?
I’ll elaborate on this a bit later in this post, but it isn’t wrong to ask if someone is a man, woman, non-binary, or anything else, but if you need to know one’s gender and you want to then know if they’re cis or trans, you need to understand that you cannot just ask them straight up about their genitals. Being trans is complicated already and there are simple ways for one to approach the question without being so explcit.
So when is it unnecessary? How about online communites:
While fortunately this website does give you the option to set “unspecified”, is it absolutely needed to post on a message board? Does it provide any enhancement to the user to have their gender specified? It needs to be made clear why you want this data.
Making it clear to the user why the gender aspect is important, but this is pointless if you asking about it wrongly.
Thanks to this tweet, I have a really horrible example from Final Fantasy XIV:
You cannot be inflexible if you’re going to ask about gender either.
How do I ask about their gender?
More often than not, I see the gender request very much a binary as follows:
This is of course wrong for one big reason: it assumes that there is gender binary. I am not going to link to the myriad of peer-reviewed documents and guidelines that state otherwise, but if you want to argue that there is a binary and nothing else, you can stop reading because this article was never meant for you.
The other problem is that it doesn’t allow the user to exempt themselves from the question.
If you have to rely on something that gives a value, then maybe consider the following:
Perhaps you have a bit more control over how you’re storing the data and you can work with free-form field such as follows:
If you have noticed in both of these, by default no gender is selected. This should be the case as it should allow for fewer accidental choices being made–Indiegamer at least by default sets itself to unspecified which is a positive here.
Should there be a concern over the free-form field being abused, just count them as not specified if you are trying to keep track of statistics or even better just count them as “male” since that seems to be the case 99% of the time when “attack helicopter” is chosen.
Additionally, some things to consider would be to instead of “male” use “man” or “female” use “woman” as we should move away from using these terms. So to improve the above example, we could do something like this:
Other things you can also consider is just asking them what their pronouns are. This can be even more inclusive as there are many of them out there and especially in online communities it can permit more inclusiveness. There are many pronouns listed on Pronoun Island’s website! The list is not exhaustive but it is pretty darn good at giving you an idea of what you could do with the above examples. You can even consider a drop-down list such as the following:
This is in my opinion one of the nicer ways to approach asking someone their gender since that question can be loaded and it may be appreciated to give them an option to just set their own pronouns and not enforce one from a pre-existing list.
If you have DBAs complaining or your software restricts you from choosing beyond the binary, you need to reconsider what tools you’re using.
I want to know if someone is transgender!
Okay. Great. Why? If this is for the reasons like the survey, then I can understand, but is it for a community? An e-commerce service? Social media? Maybe you should reconsider.
If it is important, then let’s do it the simplest way possible:
That was easy enough. This is all you should do to ask and by default the last option should remain checked. It should always remain the last one as default as many do not wish to lie and at the same time many do not wish to state whether or not they’re transgender.
One thing I need to make clear: I am a binary trans woman and as a result my views are based my perception of gender. I am open to my non-binary trans siblings opening up to me and letting me know how to improve on this blog entry of mine. It’s not a definitive guide but it definitely should alleviate the alienation that many of us have to endure when filling out various forms.
For my cisgender friends reading this, let it be known that I do not see it relevant to whether or not what is between one’s legs matters in your online service or survey. If someone says they’re a man, a woman, non-binary, agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, or whatever then that is what they are. It shouldn’t matter what is on one’s birth certificate what they are.
Statistic Canada’s survey was transphobic regardless of how many people they spoke with.