Survey Says “Woman, Man, or Transgender” – How Non-Inclusive Survey Design Erases Our Existence

Survey Says “Woman, Man, or Transgender” – How Non-Inclusive Survey Design Erases Our Existence

July 30, 2020

By Jordan Tudisco

Surveys are everywhere around us – whether designed to gather specific information for research, gauge user or consumer satisfaction, or take a census of the entire population. Survey results are often presented as factual, objective, statistical representations of reality and truth. And while many of us have never been asked to think about designing a survey, the problematic nature of so many survey questions can make us wonder if anyone has ever spent time reflecting on the matter.

The non-inclusivity of surveys is not a new issue – take, for instance, the many debates surrounding the U.S. Census defining Persians, Middle-Easterners, and North-Africans as “White” or collapsing people from East Asian and South Asian descent as “Asian.” Defenders of these decisions argue that, in order to yield meaningful statistical results, surveys need to group people into larger categories, while critiques respond that these larger categories, mainly designed by people who do not belong to them, do not represent their realities and identities anymore.

Many feel that the ways surveys are designed force them to misrepresent – or lie about – their race or their gender identity. And when these surveys are designed to gather information about diversity and inclusion, the blow is even more painful.

In 2014, the University of California sent out a Campus Climate Survey to each of its ten campuses in order to gauge the environment students, staff, and faculty were in while working, studying, and living in university settings. “Our goal is to make the University of California a model for diversity and inclusion in higher education,” their website says. Contrary to many other surveys, the UC Campus Climate Survey thus had very good reasons to ask questions about gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status, and other personal demographic information.

As a response to the imagined question “Why Does It Matter?,” the study’s website adds “Inclusiveness and diversity are critical to the success of the university. They foster trust and allow students, faculty and staff to reach their full potential.” But the design of their survey, especially their gender identity question, tells a very different story.

To many cisgender people, the four possible answers to the question “What is your gender identity?” (Woman OR man OR transgender OR genderqueer) may very well have seemed like a wonderful step forward from the usual binary options – “woman” and “man.” But for us trans people, the construction of womanhood, manhood, transness, and genderqueerness (which now would more commonly be replaced by non-binariness in most survey questions) as four exclusive categories is an attack to our identities and an erasure of our existence, for one very simple reason.

Trans women are women.

Trans men are men.

Trans non-binary people are non-binary and trans genderqueer people are genderqueer.

Transness is not a gender identity. It is a gender experience. Trans women and cis women both share the same gender identity – they are women. But trans women have the experience of having a gender-assigned-at-birth that does not match their gender identity, while cis women have the experience of having a gender-assigned-at-birth that does match their gender identity.

Asking if someone is a woman, or a man, or trans, or genderqueer/non-binary implies that trans people can neither be men nor women nor genderqueer/non-binary. Asking such a question implies that being trans erases your gender identity and replaces it. Asking such a question erases gender differences between trans men, trans women, and trans genderqueeer/non-binary people who have very different lived experiences and face various forms of oppression and discrimination due to their gender identity. Asking such a question proves that no one on your survey-design team was trans and that your desire to include us and our voices is mere lip-service in the name of empty inclusivity and diversity.

Asking such a question is inherently transphobic.

No one would think to ask if someone is a woman or Asian. No one would think to ask if someone is a man or gay. No other identity categories would erase and replace one’s gender identity.

Now, here are two very easy solutions to this problematic question:

One – in order to stop collapsing gender identity and gender experience, surveys can ask two questions instead of one. “What is your gender identity?” can have the options “woman,” “non-binary,” and “man.” The following question, “What is your gender experience?” can list “transgender” and “cisgender” as the two possible answers.

In addition, every question about demographic information in your survey should allow people to select “I prefer to self-identify” or “I decline to state.” Do not lump all of us together into one homogenous “Other” category. Let us express the invaluable variety of our identities! The list of options in your survey will never be able to represent the spectrum of forms under which human experience manifests itself.

Two – there is still a way to group gender identity and gender experience in a single question, as some surveys do. But please, do not oppose “man” and “trans man,” or “woman” and “trans woman.” Not only is this literally asking trans people to pick between two equally true statements (Laverne Cox is both a woman and a trans woman), it is also specifically – and we can see right through your game – highlighting trans men and women as “different,” as needed to be described, while cis women and men can remain the implied norm.

Instead, ask “Are you…” and offer “a trans woman,” “a trans man,” “a cis woman,” “a cis man,” “a non-binary person” as your possible answers. As stated above, do not forget to list “I prefer to self-identify” and “I decline to state” as valid alternatives.

This does not only include and validate trans lives, identities, and experiences – this also leads to stronger scientific and statistical results, ones which mirror reality more closely.

Indeed, the most ironic part of it all is that the erasure created by such a badly phrased question on the Campus Climate Survey is not only symbolic, but also statistical. When asked about their gender identity in this way, most trans people will close the survey and never look at it again. Others will select “woman,” “man,” or “genderqueer” and not “transgender,” because their gender is what they are first and foremost. In the end, the survey will say that only 0.3% of the UCSB campus identifies as transgender. The results will validate your bias and confirm that we aren’t here.

But we are here. You just have to ask the right way and you will see it.

Jordan TudiscoJordan Tudisco is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature. Their interdisciplinary research in literature, sociocultural linguistics, and queer and trans studies examines transness at large and its relationship to narratives of the self, constraints in genres and forms, trauma, criminalization and mass incarceration, and healing.