Survey vent, part 2: do gender better

For the last few years, all the official student surveys coming from my university have offered three options for gender: male, female, and transgender.  I appreciate that they’re trying—it’s better than only listing male and female—but arg, no, that’s not how it works.

By itself, “transgender” isn’t a gender; rather, it’s a descriptor meaning that your gender identity doesn’t match up with the gender you were assumed to have at birth.  Transgender people are male and female and non-binary, not an extra separate gender.

I’ve seen other surveys that attempt to do better by offering four options: male, female, transgender male, and transgender female.  However, that kind of setup implies that trans people aren’t “real” members of their gender.  It would be somewhat less problematic if the first two were specifically listed as “cisgender male” and “cisgender female”—but if you really need to know whether your survey respondents are cis or trans, consider breaking that into another question.  The Human Rights Campaign has a good example of a survey approach that separates “What is your gender?” from “Do you identify as transgender?”

Of course, as alluded to above, gender is not binary, and your survey also needs an option for people who are non-binary / genderfluid / genderqueer / agender / etc.  (Not to imply that these terms are interchangeable, because they are not, just that at bare minimum there needs to be some kind of “outside the gender binary” selection available.)  If your survey design allows it, an additional option with an open text field will help you avoid unintentionally excluding anyone.  And personally, I’d also like to see a “prefer not to say” choice for gender, as is common on some of the other demographic questions.

“Educate yourself” & “Do your research”

If you’re a parent on the internet, you’ve likely come across the “do your research” folks.  They’re the anti-vax idiots, the über-natural nuts, the ones who are convinced that formula is toxic and that any amount of crying irreparably damages your baby’s brain.  You find it a lot among fad dieters, too.  The phrase “do your research” is an immediate signal that the speaker has no idea what constitutes real research and should henceforth be ignored.

“Educate yourself” tends to come up in a very different context: diversity initiatives. “How to be a good ally” lists, that sort of thing.  Unlike the anti-vaxxers, the writers of these equity-related missives generally have the facts on their side.  Their motivation is also different: they just want the people who interact with them to stop being ignorant trolls.

However, these phrases share a common fallacy: that more information will necessarily convert the reader/listener to the side of the writer/speaker.  That’s laughably wrong in the case of the anti-vaxxers and “natural” nuts.  Such people seem to believe that they’re the bearers of a secret truth, breathlessly informing you of “facts” from Dr. Google.  It doesn’t seem to enter their worldview that we have already heard all that stuff and have considered and rejected it.

Things are much more complicated when you’re telling us how to be good allies to the underprivileged.  Reading other perspectives is absolutely a plus when it comes to being more tolerant.  But… one must always remember that not everyone is going to interpret the same information in the same way.  I’ve lurked in quite a few diversity-related conversations where disagreement was incorrectly blamed on ignorance, and people who genuinely wanted to help decided not to bother.

The moral of the story is: be careful when you say things like this.  Don’t assume that the reason someone has different opinions is because they don’t know as much as you.