trans flag love.jpg
Silver balloons spell “I hope you know how loved you are” overlayed on a trans pride flag.

Since last night’s Rittenhouse Square vigil for Jews and allies, Graie Hagan’s voice is still ringing in my ears. “If you’re trans, come closer to me.  If you’re a Jew of Color, come closer to me.”  From the top of a banister, I could see the crowd shift and beloved community members make their way toward the center.

Last week, I let the news of the Trump administration’s latest atrocity sink in and I stood up in small ways.  I hung a “We Defend Our Trans Family” poster in my cubicle at work (will you join me?), I had a deep conversation with my coworker about pronouns, all gender bathrooms, and how to explain that stuff to her kiddos, I sang and grieved for what my trans, migrant, and refugee community members are going through in a gathering with board members of EQAT.  And all of that was before the Squirrel Hill shooting.

So, why is this cis woman blogger waxing on about solidarity with trans folks on a blog about data literacy for changemakers?  Because for every aspect or category of lived experience, whether that’s gender, race, or religion, your zip code or the years you’ve been alive, there is company or organization capturing that information in a database – good or bad.  Those choices are political, and they have consequences.

The federal government’s plan to define sex as “either male or female” and “unchangeable” is not only a measure of social control, but also a question of data integrity and strategy.  Birth certificates, social security paperwork, military documents, drivers licenses, passports, and probably more that I’m not even thinking of (!), use sex or gender as a data point.  Your database probably does, too!

Sometimes including gender and sexuality information is part of being “out” and it can feel good.  You might want people to know your gender identity, your pronouns, some pieces of information about who you are in the world besides “name” and “email.”  Capturing this information is one way to honor and respect your diverse constituents.  Database managers are singularly in charge of this – and we truly have a part to play in the work of liberation.

Other times, it feels like an invasion of privacy.  Why do you need to “come out” to sign up for a gym membership?  A magazine subscription?  Is this information discreet and private?  How will it be used?  Is the information safe from attacks or leaks?  Will people be treated differently based on what they include?

When I am presented with a form to fill out (whether it’s market research, a sign-in sheet, a survey, etc), I am always curious about how the form owner is going to ultimately capture and segment the information.  Are you calculating a metric?  Are you going to get around to it on a rainy day?  Or are you just asking because you think you should but you don’t have a clear plan for using the info?  If you are a database administrator, I think you should be able to describe how to use every field you create in your database.  And, if you don’t have a plan for using the data to better serve your community, you probably shouldn’t be asking for it.

Sure, there are situations where collecting information about gender identity and/or sexual orientation are absolutely relevant!  Job application?  Nope.  Client services form for an LGBT health center?  Absolutely.  Faith community?  For my synagogue, you bet.  That’s a big reason why queer folks JOIN our synagogue!  For others – I’m on the fence.  It depends on that community’s interests and values.  There’s really no one size fits all approach.

I think this is a good time to review fundamentals for how to ask a question about sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation (IF you determine that it is necessary).  Sarai Rosenberg covers all this and more (plus many excellent examples of survey questions, both recommended and not recommended) in her piece on Respectful Collection of Demographic Data.  She includes 9 principles, and I’m going to quote them here:

  1. Ask affected communities for their input.
  2. Identify whether you truly need all of the information you ask for.
  3. Explain your purpose and your privacy policy.
  4. Offer multi-select checkboxes, not single-select radio buttons.
  5. Allow users to self-describe.
  6. Do not require a response.
  7. Consider your defaults.
  8. Consider the presentation and influence of your survey.
  9. Learn how to write questions about gender and sexuality.

Recommended wording for survey questions

I’ve done a bunch of research about how to design gender-inclusive surveys, create database systems that are able to accommodate a variety of gender identities and experiences, and are relatively simple to use.  And I added a few more layers to that research while I was preparing this blog post.  I specifically want to draw your attention to this resource, which focuses on large “population scale” surveys (like the census) or social science research studies.  Their recommended approach is different from mine, but I think our purposes are also different, so there’s room for both!  As a contrast, I want to share the survey that the US Transgender Survey used (truly an unprecedented effort).  It starts on page 251 at this link.  You can see that there’s a big difference between a mass survey and a targeted survey, and between questions that trans folks write about themselves versus questions written for an audience of mostly cis folks.

All that being said, here’s how I generally write questions about gender identity and sexual orientation (assuming we have already decided that the questions are relevant to our work and we are asking for a good reason)

We use these question to assess how we are doing with reaching constituents of different gender identities and sexual orientations, and adjust our outreach efforts accordingly.  Your answers may be aggregated and reported in internal documents but never shared publicly, however your answers are not considered anonymous and they will be connected with your identifying information.  Your answers can change at any time and we’ll update our records accordingly.   Please contact xxxxx@xxx.org if you have feedback about these questions.

How would you describe your gender identity?  (Select all that apply)

  • Man
  • Woman
  • Nonbinary
  • I prefer not to say
  • Prefer to self describe: _____________

Would you describe yourself as transgender?  (Select all that apply)

  • Yes
  • No
  • I prefer not to say
  • Prefer to self describe: ______________

Do you consider yourself a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Transgender (LGBT) community?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Prefer not to say
  • Other: _______________
  • *Optional: No, but I identify as an Ally (suggested by the Human Rights Campaign)

How would you describe your current sexual orientation?

  • Straight/heterosexual
  • Gay or Lesbian
  • Bisexual or pansexual
  • Queer
  • Prefer to self describe: _______________
  • Prefer not to say

Looking ahead

My dream is that we, as changemakers who sometimes collect data and database managers who are committed to social change, grow in our ability to collect data in a thoughtful, respectful, meaningful way – driving justice and equity and help us lead our organizations in that direction.  My hope is that we stay in the conversation as new types of gender identities are named, and that databases are agile enough to accommodate as many types of gender expressions as our community members have.  And that those of us who are cis take this as an opportunity to really examine how transphobia and biological essentialism have embedded their belief systems into our structures and decisions – and then challenge and change those patterns.

4 thoughts on “#WeWillNotBeErased – a mandate for database admins and survey researchers

  1. This is great!! Something I’d add is to be careful about how you collect names, especially if you’re collecting donations or something like that, where someone’s bank name or government name might be entering your system, but that’s not the name they use. Make sure that that name never becomes the name on a contact record, etc. For example I’ve seen donor forms with the fields “Donor Name” and “Name on card” to distinguish for folks who haven’t legally changed their names, and to make sure your database only uses people’s chosen names.

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  2. I think this is a very thoughtful and important piece. We are addressing this in my organization. One comment I would make is to be careful about offering “Other” as a choice if possible, since LGBTQ+ folks already feel “othered” and that choice, while appearing to give the respondent more control over their self-definition for your data purposes, is potentially problematic. I don’t have a good alternative but I wanted to share this. Thank you!

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