Sunday, January 26, 2014

Troubleshooting Social Science Surveys, Part I: Why are you separating "cis" from "trans" anyway?

This is a two-part essay that's meant to be a resource for the people--especially grad students--who constantly barrage online queer space with their research surveys.  It's not that I mind the surveys, but I practically never see any that handle gender in a sensitive and appropriate manner.  If the survey taker even tries to be inclusive of more than just binary cis genders, they often wind up with something like this:

 In case you're not that in-tune with appropriate ways to represent transgender people, there are loads of things wrong with using these questions--and those options--to separate people by gender.  It uses insensitive language and misrepresents what gender identity even means.  In addition, it is often unclear if trans peoples' results will even be used in the research or if the ability to disclose is just a convenient way for the researcher to totally scrap all our results!

Like I said, this is an essay in two parts.  In the second part I will be going over the ways these surveys have typically failed.  For the first part, though, I want you--the grad student, the researcher, whomever--to consider why you feel you need trans people to disclose to begin with.

Several years ago, a friend of mine was doing research for a set of undergraduate papers.  One of them researched men, the other women.  When I (a trans man) asked if he would like to interview me, his response was that perhaps he would interview me... if he did a paper researching trans people in the future.  I didn't think much about it at the time, having been relatively  new to this sort of thing.  But the more time goes by, the more that distinction and the tendency for cis researchers to insist trans folk not be counted in their statistics irritates me.

This is because it's based on heavily cissexist thinking.

Time and time again, people who advocate for transgender exclusion pull the "different experiences" card (or, more sinisterly, the "shared girlhood" card among TERFs).  They make the case that trans folk have such different experiences growing up from cis people that if we're included in a study with our identified gender we'll just fuck the whole thing up and taint the results.  Or that we relate to our gender radically differently from cis people.  There are loads of people who think they're allies to the trans community who express this "iffy" feeling about knowingly categorizing trans people with cis people of the same gender identity, usually under this "different experiences" banner.

This is the reality, though:  This "different experiences that change how one relates to gender" card could easily be pulled for any other category of human you might survey.  Three women who were raised in different religions will relate to their gender differently from each other.  Three men who are different races and ethnic backgrounds will relate to their gender differently from each other, too.  Region, income, sexual orientation, ability, these are all things that can radically change how people relate to their gender identities.  These are categories that are more likely to be subject to a quota (to make sure the results have reasonably accurate percentages based on demographic) than entirely omitted or moved into their own separate category.  But omitting trans people is a regular occurrence.

When you single trans folk out, you are saying that there is something so inherently and radically different about us that we don't even deserve to be categorized with our own gender identity.  This is cissexism.  This is transphobia.

"But what if I have like a really, really good reason?!"  I'm not saying you don't.  Of course there are reasons you might want to exclude trans folk from research, but there are some things to keep in mind, here:

1. Really ask yourself why you feel we should be excluded.

Is it because you just have a "hunch" we don't think or behave similar enough to other people in our identified gender?  You're being cissexist.  Stop it.

Are you talking about something that requires a particular body structure or functionality?  Then you just might have a valid reason for that exclusion.  Read onward.

2. Is this body structure or functionality actually limited to just cis people?

 Keep in mind that with any biological function or physical configuration you're going to have people of multiple genders sharing it.  There are men out there get ovarian cancer, there are women who get prostate cancer.  There are women who get people pregnant, there are men who get pregnant.  There are men with vaginas and women with penises.  So if you're looking for hard statistics on just that one biological fact, then there is the option of only opening the survey to people who have gone through that particular experience.  Keep in mind, also, that this might be considered more sensitive to cis folk who cannot have certain experiences (such as cis women who cannot get pregnant even though they want children).

Of course, that's not always appropriate.  Similar to what I was getting at when I wrote about trans male pregnancy a couple months ago, there is value in not over-representing trans people in some subjects.  Sometimes you want to know how just one gender relates to something.

You should still really think about whether it's actually a cis-only phenomenon or if you're just thinking that because of stereotypes.  Genital-based subjects regarding self-image, arousal, and sex acts are not cis-monopolized.  Trans women can have vaginas and vulvas.  Trans men can have penises.  If you're worried about them being surgically created... cis men and cis women may also have surgically altered or reconstructed genitals.  The issue here, again, is not "cis" and "trans."  It's more individual than that.

So that concludes part 1, and I hope I've given you some things to think about regarding trans exclusion in research.  Part 2--which is published here--will specifically deal with the way gender is expressed and tallied in surveys that are attempting to be inclusive of transgender, intersex, and gender-variant experiences and how you can improve them.