Weigh in on the ASA’s new Gender Categories

Guest post by Tina Fetner; cross-posted from Scatterplot.

What should the asa’s gender categories be?

The ASA is trying to respond to a request from its members to expand the options for gender on its membership form. Right now, the choices are femalemale, and prefer not to answer. There is no category that acknowledges transgender members at all, but creating a new category scheme is not as easy as it might seem. For example transsexual people and transgender people have not always appreciated being lumped into the same category. Some people reject gender categories altogether and might prefer a “none” or some other less alienating gender-non-specific category.

These gender categories are important for a number of reasons. First, by having exclusive gender schemes, the ASA is not acknowledging its trans members. Second, it is a missed opportunity to collect data on the size of the trans membership in the ASA. Third, gender categories are communicative; they tell members who may not be aware that transgender sociologists work among their ranks. Finally, it is important to get the gender categories right because they are teaching sociologists what the “appropriate” categories to use are, setting an important example for us as we design survey questions , courses, departments, etc.

The ASA staff have brought the matter to the Committee on the Status of LGBT Persons in Sociology, but there wasn’t consensus there. They propose (and are planning to implement), the following scheme: 

  • female
  • male
  • transgender-female
  • transgender-male
  • other: ___________
  • prefer not to answer

I am not an expert in trans issues, but this scheme sounds wrong to me in all kinds of ways. It conflates the transgender identity with the FtM* and MtF** identities, which is not a problem for some people, but others see transgender as quite different from the identities that indicate a “switch” of genders. The “other” category is one way to capture gender non-specific individuals, but it is not the most inclusive way to do so.

I looked for guidance from some trans activism website, but there is a lack of consensus on this issue there, too. We seem to be working from scratch here. With that in mind, I am going to propose three additional schemes as conversation starters.

First, the Elegant Gender Scheme:

  • female
  • male
  • transgender
  • _______________
  • prefer not to answer

Second, the Thorough Gender Scheme:


  • female
  • male


  • FtM
  • MtF
  • transgender
  • No gender
  • _________________

Prefer not to answer

Third, the Open Gender Scheme:

  • gender identity: ___________________________

I wonder if others have opinions on this issue. While I don’t imagine there is one right way to do this, I can see quite clearly how easy it is to get it wrong.

*FtM = Female-to-Male = a man who was born in a female body

**MtF = Male-to-Female = a woman who was born in a male body

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23 Responses to Weigh in on the ASA’s new Gender Categories

  1. I am actually quite stunned that intersex is not even mentioned as a possible category, especially for an organisation that seems to want to be progressive and is in so many important ways. However in this instance the ASA seems to be replicating societal ignorance and erasure of intersex identities and bodies.

    My elegant solution to a problem that is IN-elegant and complex would be:

    Check as many as apply:
    All of the above
    None of the above
    Fill in the blank ______________

  2. Many people, many of them trans themselves, have been working on this issue for awhile. For example, the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health recommends a two question strategy. One questions identifies current gender, another identifies sex assigned at birth.


    The CDC have been using a version of this for their HIV surveillance for awhile.

    • Jaime Becker says:

      Why does the ASA need to know anyone’s sex assigned at birth?

      • Its needed if you want to be able to differentiate between trans and cis populations. Given a situation within the “Elegant Gender Scheme” you will have trans women (or trans men) pick female (or male) rather than the transgender or other option. Thus undercounting trans populations.

        The “Thorough Gender Scheme” will require sophisticated language to channel one group to one question and the other group. That will likely make its use too complicated.

        The “Open Gender Scheme” would be easy but would involve alot of work to process for reporting purposes. Plus you will likely have people providing very unique answers that will not be easily coded (e.g. gender pirate).

  3. The source(s) is (are) likely obvious, but I’ve seen more detailed classification schemes including M, F, MtF/TF, FtM/TM, genderfluid (GF), and intersex (IS). Obvious additions to even that include androgynous/bigender and neuter/eunuch. And there’s still room for a blank to fill in. There aren’t so many categories as to be burdensome, so some of the more common of the non-binary transgender/trans* categories can be enumerated beyond trans male/female, too.

    Further clarification is also possible by distinguishing gender identity and expression and explicitly querying regarding often-conflated aspects of identity such as assignment at birth, current bodily configuration, and sexual orientation. Direct questioning about often-conflated factors may help avoid those being questioned letting those factors bleed over into their responses about gender identity and expression by providing an outlet for them to be distinctly expressed.

  4. Jaime Becker says:

    First off, female and male are indications of sex and not gender. ASA should know this.

    I propose the categories be:
    woman (this is for both cisgender women and transwomen who don’t identify as trans)
    man (again both cismen and transmen who don’t identify as trans)
    and a fill in option that is blank (and doesn’t say “other”)

    People should be able to choose as many of the options as they like.

    • Ailsa Craig says:

      Jaime–I like this list of options, and the fact that people choose as many options as apply–and that’s the key. I’ve been trying to sort this out and looking at different possibilities that are being used, and this is the first list I could answer on a survey or form myself and feel like I’d told the truth. Nice. I wonder, do others find that this is lacking in some way? Either in terms of feeling like it would provide required options to represent themselves, or in terms of the data that we might be trying to collect (here I’m thinking more broadly than just the ASA form).

      • Jaime Becker says:

        I’m so glad that my suggestion worked for you, Ailsa. I’m very interested in categorization schemes and how coercive they can be. I think the underlying problem with categorization systems is that they often are not based on what people actually want to know but are rather one or more steps removed from it.

  5. Megan says:

    I mean, the first problem here is that they are asking about gender identity but providing sex categories as possible answers. I prefer the open gender scheme.

  6. tina says:

    I don’t want to derail this excellent conversation by chiming in, but I want to address the sex/gender conflation. I see this as exactly the crossroad that the ASA as an organization is at: using traditional sex categories because that has been the standard, but realizing that what it/we really want to know about is gender. Of course, we haven’t changed the language from female/male (although I see the feminist touch there that female is listed first), but we certainly can do it now–and the ASA wants our input as to how. I see this conversation being central to that project, and I am so grateful for all this thoughtful discussion.

  7. I think it’s vital that we differentiate between sex and gender, and that we don’t assume transgender and genderqueer are the same… a longer more exhaustive list is better than a short one that misses the point

  8. Laurel Westbrook says:

    I think it all depends on what the purpose of the data is. If the goal is to represent the actual identities of the members, there should just be a blank. If the goal is to examine levels of inequality, and we are interested in cis vs trans (or cis vs. non-cis), then the options should reflect that. If we are actually interested in inequality based on gender conformity, then we should ask something about that (many cis people don’t conform to traditional gender norms and experience discrimination because of that, while many trans people do conform). If we are interested in comparing those who were labeled female at birth to those who were labeled male (and, perhaps those who were labeled intersex), then a sex question makes sense. There could be a two tiered question (like the transhealth link above), asking sex at birth and then current gender identity (with woman, man, transgender, genderqueer, no gender, and a blank). Or, the two tiered question could ask about sex at birth and then about gender presentation (with a scale running from masculine to androgynous to feminine).
    If the interest is in inequality, there is also the question of self-identity vs. perceived gender. So, while I may identify as genderqueer, I may be read as a conforming cisgender woman. Thus, if we are interested in inequalities based on how people are perceived (as opposed to how they identify), there might need to be a question about that.
    Unfortunately, this is all very complicated…of course, so is gender 🙂

    • Jaime Becker says:

      Amen to all of that!

      • Thank you Laurel. This is an excellent presentation of the multifaceted inquiries we are trying to address in a simple survey format. Perhaps what we need is to decide on a research project in which our members are the subjects then ask everyone to answer all of these questions.

        My answers might change depending upon the day and how I feel. Somedays people see me as cis female and other days everyone I meet says “yes sir”. . .

  9. I think open is the way to go.

    Whatever other choices that are made, they are inevitably historical. MtF and FtM are already increasingly being challenged and disfavored, for example. Nobody can, or should, predict which terms will be in common use for notable gender categories in the future.

    Listing categories, whatever the list, has two harms. It leads the respondent. And it marks those categories necessarily unlisted as other, abnormal. The blog doesn’t mention it, but the use of “other:_____” in the original proposal seems particularly clumsy way to, well, other the others .

  10. Pingback: https://socialinqueery.com/2013/08/22/weigh-in-on-the-asas-new-gender-categories/ | genderandsexuality360

  11. Eric says:

    This piece totally dismissed Intersex individuals. Someone who is Intersex is not specifically a male or female, and may or may not be “trans”itioning to either specific gender. In al the examples discussed, an Intersex person would have to declare as “other” or “rather not say”, even if they rather would like to say.
    Intersexualism in some ways is the bisexuality of the gender realm. Just as bisexuals still fight for acceptance in that they are not straight or gay, but many have a need to expect them to pick one, Intersex folks have a similar issue. An Intersex person is neither female nor male, yet others cannot accept that someone can actually wish to be in that “in-between” state. It’s not a weakness of an inability to decide, its the strength of true self-acceptance.
    Modern societies and languages have a real need for a true personal pronoun referring to a person of indeterminate or undisclosed gender, but something more human than “it”. I leave the technical aspects of what that word should be up to the linguists.

    • JB says:

      Hi Eric, intersex is not a gender designation, it is a sex designation. Sex is biological aspects of the body and the social meaning we make of those aspects. So right now we have female, male, and intersex as sex designations in the US (though intersex is not an official designation as it is now in Germany). Gender is only about social meaning and the designations are woman/man, boy/girl, feminine/masculine, transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, genderfucker etc. An intersex person can be any gender they choose, just as females and males can be any gender they choose. Which is not to say others will recognize their gender identity correctly. ASA continues to be confused about this simple yet apparently complex conceptual difference.

      • You make an important distinction, JB. But I want to emphasize the “social meaning” we make of biological aspects of the body. Identifying and categorizing sex characteristics in the body is a gendered process, and we (including especially medical professionals) do it in the context of our understandings of gendered traits. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body provides a fascinating account of many example of this in action.

        This whole discussion largely convinces me of the unavoidable and dangerous reductionism inherent to quantitative research. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do quantitative research, and do it better. But we must always remember that we cannot avoid bringing our existing cultural frameworks to operationalizing.

      • JB says:

        I completely agree Jamie, it’s all about the social meaning. I actually don’t think it’s possible to do quantitative research on gender per se because of the built in binary. I think it’s possible to do quantitative research on inequality between women and men but not on gender. However, even this research often provides no new information beyond the inequality we are already quite aware of.

  12. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | When Academic Organizations Fail To Fight Anti-LGBT Discrimination

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