Sunday, February 5, 2012

On Sex/Gender Checkboxes

Day in and day out, sex and gender minorities are boxed in by being confronted with sex/gender checkboxes. This starts the moment we are born, when a binary sex must be checked on our birth certificates: “male” or “female.” For individuals who are born with visibly intersex bodies, this requirement causes a crisis. Families and doctors make hasty decisions about which box they'll force us into, and we have to live with the consequences all of our lives. Having checked off a binary “M” or “F,” those with authority over our infant bodies often feel that trying to reshape our bodies conform to the box they've picked is unavoidable. Thus, genital surgeries are routinely performed, despite the deep unhappiness so many intersex people voice about the results as adults. Great pain might be avoided if parents were allowed to acknowledge our physical truth on birth certificates which included an intersex checkbox, or if the gender marker requirement were simply removed.

For people who are trans gender, gender transitioning is made traumatic in large part due to the checkboxes we must face daily. Binary gender markers are everywhere: on our drivers' licenses and passports, on loan applications and job applications, and on websites everywhere (from Facebook to shopping sites to online radio stations). Once you've checked off one box, changing it is bureaucratically and legally difficult—and sometimes there's no way to change it at all. This leads to all sorts of hassles and embarrassment, as we're “outed” in odd contexts. Worse still, if the gender we're living in doesn't match the marker on our ID, we're subject to being banned from flying, arrested by bigoted police officers, and denied employment.

For folks who don't identify with a binary gender, the world of checkboxes constantly denies our very existence. We go institutionally unrecognized, with no way to even try to say “I am here!”

Sex and gender minorities have some protection in institutional settings that bar discrimination on the basis not only of sex, but of gender identity or expression. But often, such policies are adopted with no follow-through on what it really means for a university or company or city to protect gender identity and expression. Unaware of our needs, administrators think only of ensuring that trans people aren't being kicked out just for gender transitioning. While this is certainly important, there are many more needs that must be addressed. And central among these are that sex/gender checkboxes protect the rights of sex and gender minorities.

I have written a Best Practices guide that is under discussion at my university. It lays out a plan for rewriting sex/gender checkboxes that is meant to address the needs of intersex, trans gender, and gender variant people, in this case, in a university setting. There are some inevitable compromises in it between institutional desires for simplicity and brevity, and our desires as individuals to have our identities recognized in all of their fullness and uniqueness. But I wanted to share it here so that other people who are looking for a guideline to use in seeking to better the way institutions around them limit sex/gender choices would have something to start with. It doesn't address the problem of birth certificates, for example, since universities don't issue them. It does, however, address the question of how sex and gender and sexuality should be measured in research in some detail.

Please feel free to share and employ at will.

Best Practices for Identification of Sex/Gender

Compiled by Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello

I. Foundational Principles
Institutions which commit themselves to protecting against discrimination on the basis of sex and of gender identity or expression (GIE) must give individuals the right to self-identify their sex/gender.
Whenever data are gathered about sex/gender, the rights of GIE minorities (intersex individuals, trans men, trans women, and individuals with alternative gender identities) must be protected.

II. Definitions
“GIE minorities” include intersex individuals, trans gender individuals (trans men, trans women, and individuals with alternative gender identities), and people with variant gender expression.

Intersex Persons
While it is common to believe that sex is binary—that is, that all people are born either male or female—in fact, sexual characteristics exist as a spectrum. There is a great deal of variation in chromosomes (XX, XY, XXY, XYY, etc.), hormones (relative levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone), secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, hair distribution, etc.) genital configurations, and gonads (ovaries, ovotestes, testes). Intersex people are individuals whose sexual characteristics fall toward the middle of the spectrum. Approximately 1 in 150 people are intersexed according to medical diagnostic criteria. Most are very private about this status, though some are public about it.

Trans Gender Individuals
Individuals whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth are deemed trans gender. A trans man was assigned female at birth but identifies as male; a trans woman was assigned male at birth but identifies as female; a genderqueer individual may identify as neither male nor female. Trans gender individuals often transition to their sex of identification, though they may do so in different ways. Some transition socially by changing name, pronoun, and dress. Others also take hormones (testosterone or estrogen/progesterone) to alter their bodies. In addition, some get surgery to change their chests or genitalia. Because surgery is quite expensive, may not be covered by insurance, and because it carries serious risks, many trans gender individuals in the U.S. do not seek or are unable to access surgical transition services.

Variant Gender Expression
People of any sex or gender may have an atypical gender presentation—male femininity, female masculinity, or androgyny.

III. Best Practices in Collecting Data about Sex/Gender

The best practices for collecting data about sex/gender depend on context. If collecting data about sex/gender serves no purpose for the individuals from whom it is collected, then eliminating the question is the best practice. If data are being gathered to protect the rights and well-being of individuals, then individuals should be given self-identification options that allow GIE minorities to self-identify. These options include a shorter form for ordinary uses, and longer forms to be employed in research contexts.

Eliminating Unnecessary Requirements for Individual Sex/Gender Identification
There are many institutional contexts in which people are routinely asked to identify their sex/gender based on common marketing practices or institutional tradition rather than an intent to protect the individuals from discrimination on the basis of their sex/gender. (For example, this is a common requirement in registering to use website services.) In this situation, the best practice is simply to eliminate the unnecessary requirement of declaring sex/gender.

Standard Best Practices Short Form for Sex/Gender Identifications
In contexts in which data is collected order to ensure equal treatment and respect for all, information about sex/gender should be collected in a manner that protects GIE minorities. The goal in implementing sex/gender categories for general data collection is to protect the rights of all people, whatever their physical sex status or gender identity, including intersex individuals, trans men and trans women, and individuals with alternative gender identities. Thus, the inappropriate single question (“Sex: Male__, Female__”) should be replaced with a three-stage approach.
  1. Gender identity: Woman __, Man __, Alternate Self-identification (please write in) ______________.
  2. Do you have an intersex condition (disorder of sex development)? Yes__, No__.
  3. Are you trans gender? Yes__, No__.
In order also to ensure nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, best practices add a fourth question unrelated to GIE:
  1. Sexual orientation: Heterosexual __, Lesbian__,  Gay__, Bisexual__, Queer__, Pansexual__, Asexual__, Alternate Self-identification (please write in) ______________.
AVOID poor practices which undermine individuals' identities instead of protecting them. A common poor practice is to use a single additional checkbox: “Male__, Female__, Transgender___.” This is inappropriate for several reasons. First, it does not allow intersex individuals a way to identify themselves. Secondly, it discriminates against trans men and trans women by framing trans gender identification as incompatible with “real” male or female status. And thirdly, it does not allow for recognition of the distinct needs and identities of individuals who identify as neither male nor female.

Best Practices Long Forms for Research Contexts

Data about sex and gender are often collected in the course of research. If data are to be analyzed along the dimensions of sex and/or gender, two sets of needs must be met. The first relate to the rights of research subjects, who must be protected from harm, including the harm of discrimination on the bases of sex, gender identity or gender expression. In conducting research with human subjects, researchers will inevitably recruit research subjects who are intersex, trans gender, or variant in their gender expression, and are ethically obliged to treat them with respect. The second issue relates to the need of the researcher to have research questions carefully worded in a manner that subjects will understand and respond to in a reliable and valid manner.

Many scientific studies today continue to use “sex” as an independent variable, and measure this in a binary fashion. This is a methodological flaw, as well as discriminating against GIE minorities. It does not allow the researcher to measure what actually accounts for observed variance in the dependent variable: is it physical sex status, internal gender identity, gender-conformity or nonconformity? Just as a study that uses religion as an independent variable is improved when it not only identifies subjects as “Christian,” but allows the subjects to identify a more specific denomination, asks them how religiously observant they consider themselves, and inquires as to how often they attend church, increasing the sophistication of sex/gender questions improves study results.  The following measures are suggested:
  1. What gender do you identify with? Man__, Woman__, Other (please write in the identity)________________.
  2. What sex category were assigned at birth? Male__, Female__.
  3. As far as you know, were you born with an intersex or sex variant body? Yes__, No__.
  4. Please indicate how masculine or feminine you are in your dress and manner on the following scale: (1) very masculine, (2) moderately masculine, (3) a bit masculine, (4) androgynous, (5) a bit feminine, (6) moderately feminine, (7) very feminine.
In order also to ensure the study is not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, and to gather better data, best practices suggest that subjects also be surveyed on their sexual identity. Problems are often raised by the traditional method of asking subjects if they are “heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.” For example, people who are gender transitioning or who identify as neither male nor female are often unable to use these sexual orientation categories to classify themselves. Furthermore, it is well established that there is a difference between how many people identify their sexual orientation and the sexual activities in which they actually engage. This may be addressed through questions such as the following:
  1. To whom are you attracted, sexually and romantically? (1) only men, (2) mostly men, (3) a bit more toward men than toward women, (4) equally toward men and women, (5) a bit toward women than men, (6) mostly women, (7) only women.
  2. With whom have you been sexually involved? (1) only men, (2) mostly men, (3) a bit more men than women, (4) equally men and women, (5) a bit women than men, (6) mostly women, (7) only women.
  3. Are the people to whom you are attracted (1) very masculine, (2) moderately masculine, (3) a bit masculine, (4) androgynous, (5) a bit feminine, (6) moderately feminine, (7) very feminine.
  4. Consider the idea of a partner who identifies as neither male nor female, but as some other gender such as “genderqueer.” Do you find that (1) very appealing, (2) moderately appealing, (3) a bit appealing, (4) I feel neutral about it, (5) a bit unappealing, (6) moderately unappealing, (7) very unappealing.
Researchers who choose specifically to study GIE minorities should consider them a vulnerable subject pool for IRB human subject protection purposes. In cases of studies recruiting intersex, trans gender, or gender-variant subjects, procedures should be set in place to protect these vulnerable subjects, and the questions asked about sex and gender carefully designed to accord all subjects with full respect for persons. Confidentiality should be strictly protected, data collected in a location where subjects will not be at risk of having others see or overhear their responses, and information sheets listing appropriate support groups and links to mental health resources distributed to those recruited to participate.


  1. "If collecting data about sex/gender serves no purpose for the individuals from whom it is collected, then eliminating the question is the best practice." Absolutely!

    Data for data's sake is *at best* an intrusive waste of time and effort. If the purpose of the question is to enable the collector to send pseudo-personalized marketing garbage (probably 97% of cases), then a field in which I state how I wish to be addressed is sufficient.

    A good article. I'll be interested to hear how it is taken up.

  2. It's late... er... early, so I can't put much effort into a reply yet. I hope that's okay?

    There are two things that stuck out for me with this. The first would be that you left out asexual orientation. I'm sure this was not intentional, by any means. I've yet to meet anyone who is asexual who identifies their sexual orientation as queer by default.

    The second would be... would it be necessary to fill out the (?) sections? Some of those could be very difficult to fill out... especially if a person doesn't subscribe to any gender descriptions, or if they have trouble with those kinds of questions due to a disability or somesuch.

    1. Your first point was something I'd noticed too. Whether or not asexuals are queer, we're GSMs, which such questions should ideally be able to acknowledge.

  3. Hi! I think that having best practices for collecting sex & gender data is defintiely a step in the right direction. However, I would suggest that instead of asking, "Do you have an intersex condition?" you consider asking, "Do you have an intersex VARIATION?" While the term "condition" makes it difficult to think about or understand intersex outside of a medical context, using the terms "variation" or "form of intersex," for example, make it easier to understand intersex bodies as normal variations of the human body, and doesn't construct it as an undesirable medical problem.

    Thanks for posting!

  4. Other orientations to take into consideration include pansexual, demisexual, asexual.

    I have generally identified as bisexual because it is simple, but the more I learn the more pansexual seems more appropriate. I am not overwhelmingly attracted to anyone by their gender, sexuality, masculinity/femininity. I have been attracted to all types and orientations, including asexual, which might seem odd, but it can work.

    Is there a ticky-box for mildly masculinized XX with female external and secondary sex characteristics attracted to all types equally?

  5. I find the last proposed questionnaire odd. You have great sensitivity in the area of gender, but seem to have forgotten about variance in sexual identity that really is broader than "heterosexual", "homosexual" and "bisexual". Really, are you unable to imagine that there are adult people who have never been sexually involved with anyone, by their free will or by chance? As all too often, asexuals have it hardest to fit in this scheme...

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