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How to Ask About Sexuality/Gender

Asking about sex, gender, or sexual orientation on a form, survey, or project

When filling out forms, LGBTQ+ people are often forced to choose between limited options that do not include their identities. This lack of options is invalidating and makes it impossible for surveyors to collect accurate data. 

Collecting demographic information in ways that are inclusive to all identities is a positive step for any organization to make toward greater accuracy and equity. This guide will offer a few specific ways to ask about gender and sexuality in ways that are respectful and inclusive. Definitions to all the terms on the survey lists can be found on our ‘definitions‘ page.

 

General Guidelines

Only ask about sex, gender, or sexuality when it is necessary. If you must ask, explain briefly to participants why the data is being collected, how it will be used, and how it will be protected. Identity information is routinely used to target LGBTQ+ people, so make sure they know that it won’t be used for discriminatory purposes. All questions regarding sex, gender, or sexuality should be optional. 

 

Suggested wording for the beginning of the survey*: 

This information is used for _________.

Only (name of office) will have access to this information.

Your responses will be kept private and secure (if the form is anonymous, please indicate that).

The information will not be used for a discriminatory purpose.

You can change this information in the future by __________.

 

Ask about each identity separately. Don’t combine all three categories into one question. 

Please note: some identities that are less widely recognized, like stud and boi, have some fluidity between the concepts of gender and sexuality, depending on who claims them. These identities often originated in and are mainly used within communities of color. For form-creation purposes, ask about gender identity and sexual orientation separately, but be aware that some of the terms that respondents use may overlap concepts. 

 

Be as inclusive as possible. The most inclusive way to ask about sex, gender, or sexuality is to leave a blank option where participants can list their identities in their own words. 

Alternatively, if that isn’t feasible, create a list of options that allows participants to select all identities that apply to them (for example, someone might select both “gay” and “same-gender-loving” as identities on a question about sexuality). 

See more specific guidelines for asking about gender, sexuality, and sex assigned at birth below. 

 

Asking about Gender 

First, consider why you are asking about gender. Is this necessary demographic information to collect? It may be useful to collect gender identity data to supplement forms that only ask about sex assigned at birth. 

If it isn’t necessary, consider not asking. 

Second, make sure you’re not conflating gender (e.g. woman, genderqueer) with sex assigned at birth (male, female, intersex). For many people, sex assigned at birth does not align with gender. Explain to respondents how the information will be used, who will have access to it, and how it will be protected. 

If you need to ask about gender, here are a couple of wording options: 

Leave a blank space where the respondent can fill in their identity.

Example:
Gender Identity __________________

When such an open-ended question is not possible, allow participants to select from a list with multiple options. Because a respondent’s gender may align with more than one of the listed identities (for example, someone may identify as a transgender woman), it is recommended that you either ask whether a respondent identifies as transgender in a separate question or include both “cisgender” and “transgender” in the listed gender identity options. 

A. Do you identify as transgender? 

__ Yes

__ No

__ Prefer not to disclose

 

B. Gender identity (select all that apply):

__ agender

__ genderqueer or gender fluid

__ māhū

__ man

__ muxe

__ non-binary

__ questioning or unsure

__ two-spirit

__ woman

__ prefer not to disclose

__ additional gender category/identity not listed (please specify below)

    Gender Identity __________________

 

*Note: The identities listed are most common in North America. Many other gender identities exist and are recognized throughout the world. 

When choosing which identities to include, consider the population of people you are surveying. Please visit our definitions page for questions about any of the terminology listed here. 

Depending on your needs, you may adapt the language and identities that you choose to list. For example, while it is not ideal, you can reasonably combine the terms ‘agender’, ‘genderqueer’, and ‘genderfluid’ for demographic information collection purposes. 

If you are looking to find out more information about an individual responding to your survey, an exhaustive list of categories/identities is more inclusive. However, if you are looking to report out data from multiple respondents, more categories could potentially lead to smaller, less generalizable sample sizes.

If you have questions about inclusive wording on forms, surveys, or projects, please contact <chris.purcell@vanderbilt.edu.

 

Asking about Sexual Orientation/Sexual Identity/Sexuality

Asking about sexual orientation respectfully is similar to asking about gender–consider why you are asking and how the information will be used. 

Suggested wording:

Sexual Identity/Sexual Orientation ____________________________

or, when such an open-ended question is not possible:

Sexual Identity/Sexual Orientation (select all that apply):

__ aromantic

__ asexual

__ bisexual

__ fluid

__ gay

__ lesbian

__ pansexual

__ queer

__ questioning or unsure

__ same-gender-loving

__ straight (heterosexual)

__ stud

__ prefer not to disclose

__ additional category/identity not listed (please specify below)

  Sexual Identity/Sexual Orientation ______________________

 

*Note: The identities listed are most common in North America. Many other sexual identities exist and are recognized throughout the world. When choosing which identities to include, consider the population of people you are surveying. Please visit our definitions page for questions about any of the terminology listed here. 

Depending on the needs of your situation, you may adapt language or choose to combine certain categories. While it is not ideal, you can reasonably combine these terms for demographic information collection purposes: 

asexual/aromantic

bisexual/pansexual/fluid

If you are looking to find out more information about an individual responding to your survey, an exhaustive list of categories/identities is more inclusive. However, if you are looking to report out data from multiple respondents, more categories could potentially lead to smaller, less generalizable sample sizes.

 

Asking about Sex Assigned at Birth

As is the case when asking about gender or sexuality, only ask about sex assigned at birth if it is relevant to your survey objectives (e.g. a medical form) and explain how the information will be used and protected. 

Suggested wording:

Sex assigned at birth:

__ male

__ female

__ intersex

__ prefer not to disclose

 

If you have questions about inclusive wording on forms, surveys, or projects, please contact chris.purcell@vanderbilt.edu

 

*This wording is based on “Suggested Best Practices from the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals

 

Further resources on gender and sexuality data collection

American Institutes for Research LGBTQ Youth Page – “AIR is one of the world’s largest behavioral and social science research and evaluation organizations.”

The Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals – “a member-based organization working towards the liberation of LGBTQ people in higher education”

The Williams Institute – “the leading research center on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy”