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What’s in a Label?

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Gender & Self-Identification in Data Gathering

This post is an adaptation of a Twitter thread I had written after first seeing this in the feedback form. You may view the original thread here.

So PAX Australia put out a feedback survey and, in line with their commitment to inclusivity, had the demographic section ask which of the following you identified with as your gender.

Clearly, I have some reservations about it.

Here are the definitions of these terms, in my own words:

  • Female & Male – These are what we refer to as the binary genders.
  • Transgender – While this is an umbrella term that is used for anyone who’s gender is not the same as the one they were designated at birth, because of the visibility of binary trans people (trans women & trans men), some might personally define transgender as transitioning from one side of the binary to another.
  • Cisgender – Though not included in the options seen here, cisgender is just the word used to describe anyone who’s gender is the same as the one they were designated at birth.
  • Non-binary – This refers to anyone who’s gender exists outside the Female & Male binary. This can include people who see themselves as both, neither, somewhere in between or fluid and changing.
  • Third Gender – This is the word usually used to describe cultural identities and genders outside the binary, such as Two Spirit in the Americas, Hijras in the Indian subcontinent, Bakla in the Philippiens,etc.
  • Genderqueer – An identity that is often used to describe that their gender falls outside the conventional norms. In the early 2000s, this term was what I more commonly saw to mean the same thing NB does until it began to diminish in popularity online.
  • Gender Non-Conforming – A term that is more commonly used to denote gender expession and presentation rather than as a gender on it’s own. A GNC person sees themselves as going against (not conforming to) expectations of their gender. Like trans and cis, it can be an auxiliary descriptor, and is not mutually exclusive with other gender identities.

First, we gotta ask, why include gender as part of your survey question? What do you want to find out?

Is it to see how much of the audience is not cis men who are seen as the majority in this space? Is it to try to get an accurate picture of how much of your audience can be categorised as one gender or the other? Or is it to allow your audience to see their gender identity listed there? There are more reasons out there, of course, and it is also possible for you to want to ask this question for multiple reasons too.

But with any of the usual reasons we collect this data, I can’t help but feel like these options miss the mark. They don’t do a good enough job of meeting those goals for the question and even muddle the results because of the lack of clarity and problematic nature of their options.

Transgender as a Single Option

The first issue is something I see done ALL THE TIME, (which obviously is most relevant to me) and that’s having binary genders listed as such:

  • Female
  • Male
  • Transgender

This begs the question of how they define transgender. Is are the options for Female & Male exclusively for cisgender people? Are trans men & women supposed to both tick trans? Or are binary trans people meant to still tick Female or Male, and that Transgender is just the option for those outside the binary?

Many trans people still experience their gender on the binary. They are male or female first and trans is just the auxiliary descriptor for that the way cis is for cisgender people. If we are to understand that Female and Male here are exclusively for the use of cisgender people, then the expectation that binary trans people all collectively must define themselves as only ‘transgender’ perpetuates a level of invalidation and othering that harkens to the idea that binary trans people are ‘not really’ male or female.

It sets a conundrum trans people might not know how to answer. Quickly surveying binary trans people I knew, all of them answered that they would have selected Male or Female, but still feel conflicted about it because of how the options were structured.

At the same time, it was not lost on myself or the people I asked that some might pick the all-encompassing Transgender option even though it may make them uncomfortable if they thought it was important to have the number of transgender respondents known. The trans men especially, feel very conflicted about answering Male because of wanting to show that there are more than just cis men in a space.

And Now, Outside the Binary

But it’s not just a problem with binary genders that make these options ineffective. This form, in particular, chose a very peculiar way to group and distinguish other gender identities.

  • Non-Binary / Third Gender
  • Genderqueer/Gender Non-Conforming
  • Self Identify

As stated above, Non-Binary is often seen as the umbrella for all identities outside of the Female-Male binary. While this does include Third Genders, it also includes Genderqueer, Genderfluid (having a gender identity that is not fixed), Agender (no gender), Demigender (a gender that may lean towards one of the binary genders, but is not encompassed by it) and a slew of others.

The confusion comes from separating Genderqueer and only having Third Gender in the same category, which leads the respondents to think that a non-binary gender in this case is the same as a third gender. Of the people I spoke to in writing this, those who primarily self-identify as non-binary were more likely to select Genderqueer/Gender Non-conforming, because they strongly didn’t want to identify with being a third gender.

Gender Non-Conforming, on the other hand, should not have been grouped in with Genderqueer because of how it is more commonly used as an auxiliary descriptor. Gender Non-Conforming people can be cis, trans, non-binary, etc. It just means you do not conform to the expectations of how you should express your gender.

Then you have Self Identify, which makes no sense unless it was meant to be the option that allowed write-ins. (But it didn’t.) This almost makes one think that this was copypasted from somewhere else. The people I spoke to did not know quite what to make of this.

This creates much confusion for gender-diverse people and prevents you from achieving the goals of asking for this information in the first place. Another commonly echoed sentiment was that because there was so much confusion and overlap with the options, some would rather abstain from answering because none of the options felt right, even if they might not have any issue answering that.

I do believe it can be very important to get this information, especially for social and community-driven organisations to better understand their demographic, but this is not the way to go.

So What Should Be Done?

We then have to go back to the question of what you want this information for.

For the purposes of your data, does it matter if the respondents are cisgender or transgender? If all that matters is knowing whether someone fits within the binary or not, simplifying it to:

  • Female
  • Male
  • Non-binary

is usually enough to satisfy most people. Binary trans people would know they aren’t being discouraged from selecting the gender they identify as, and the slew of non-binary identities would not feel forced to have to stick within the binary.

But if you need a more nuanced look at the demographic breakdown, I recommend this:

  • Cisgender Female
  • Cisgender Male
  • Transgender Female
  • Transgender Male
  • Non-binary

In both cases, it is extremely important to include both the options to abstain from specifying, as well as allowing for write-ins when possible- although I acknowledge the technical limitations there may sometimes be with forms.

‘Why only have Non-binary instead of X, Y, Z?’ you might ask. While I do not think it is wrong to have many more options included, you run the risk of then leaving a person confused about what to pick if their gender isn’t among these options. Many people who fall under the non-binary umbrella can acknowledge that diversity in gender identity can be so vast and nebulous that it might actually be impossible to list every identity. But by keeping it to just non-binary, you prevent the pitfalls of implying more limitation and meaning that often arises when you have other descriptors alongside non-binary. Keeping it simple can be the more respectful option while also providing clear data for you.

At the end of the day though, I do still want to commend PAX Australia for trying. I don’t say this to vilify anyone who’s, at the very least, trying to buck the cissexist standard by which this question is usually asked.

But for the sake of both gathering accurate data, not overcomplicating things, and not alienating your audience, we must be more careful to do better. There still runs the risk of perpetuating harm in other ways.

It’s a good first step! Now let’s do better.


Because folks' understanding of these concepts varies, I do not want to say definitively that my usage is 'the correct' one, but simply that these are common enough definitions and usages of these terms and must be considered.

In the morning it took me to write this opinion piece, I had spoken to 11 other trans people (both binary and non-binary) to get their opinions, so this opinion is also limited by my own experience and understanding.

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