Defining Gender Categories

American Sociological Association tries to figure out the gender choices members should get to categorize themselves -- and the process is far from simple.

September 10, 2013

Question: How many sociologists does it take to develop a working set of gender categories?

Answer: A lot.

Of all professional organizations, one might expect the American Sociological Association to have generally accepted gender categories on its membership form. But some in the association have accused it of being behind the terminological curve, and coming up with a better set of categories is revealing – to some – a surprising lack of consensus on the matter.

Tina Fetner, associate professor of sociology at McMaster University in Ontario and new member of the ASA Council, has taken the question to the blogosphere. In recent posts to Social (In)Queery and Scatterplot, she wrote: “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 female, male 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, she said, transsexual people and transgender people “have not always appreciated being lumped into the same category.” Others reject gender categories altogether.

Late last year, ASA asked members for their input on its current terminology, in light of ongoing criticism from members. It also asked its Committee on the Status of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Persons to help shape a better set of options, said Karen Gray Edwards, director of publications and membership, in an e-mail.

Nella VanDyke, professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced and chair of that committee, said it put forth the following suggestion, noting that it opposed an “other” category for being marginalizing:

Gender (check all that apply):

  • Male
  • Female
  • Transgender 

Ultimately, ASA put forth the following set of options, in no particular order, to be used starting next month:  

  • Female
  • Male
  • Transgendered-Female
  • Transgendered-Male
  • Other (with specification if the member chooses)
  • Prefer not to answer

Edwards said the association proposed the categories to its members in a newsletter and on social media, and received little feedback.

But Fetner said in an interview that there’s still room for improvement, and she’s continuing the discussion online -- personally and professionally, but not in her official association capacity – in hopes of developing a more inclusive set of terms.

“I am not an expert in trans issues, but this [new] scheme sounds wrong to me in all kinds of ways,” she wrote in her post. “It conflates the transgender identity with the FtM [a man who was born in a female body] and MtF [a woman who was born in a male body] 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.”

Additionally, she said, “The ‘other’ category is one way to capture gender non-specific individuals, but it is not the most inclusive way to do so.”

Instead, Fetner proposed three alternative gender schemes.

She calls the first the “Elegant Gender Scheme:”

  • Female
  • Male
  • Transgender
  • _______________
  • Prefer not to answer

The second is the “Thorough Gender Scheme:”

  • Cis [a sociological term for someone whose gender identity matches his or her anatomical gender at birth]:
    • Female
    • Male
  • Trans:
    • [Woman born in a male body]
    • [Man born in a female body]
    • Transgender
  • No gender
  • _______________
  • Prefer not to answer

Fetner’s last proposal is an “open” gender scheme, to be filled in as the member wishes.

Gender is an optional field for association members, and it’s collected only for statistical purposes for use in research on the profession, grant proposals and to report on diversity on committees, editorial boards and nominees lists, according to the the ASA's diversity policy. Edwards said. It’s unclear when or if Fetner's discussion will yield any changes.

“ASA sees this as the first step in being responsive and inclusive in the options we provide to members,” Edwards said. Membership forms change often, but only prior to the launch of each new membership year, she added.

Fetner said it’s an essential discussion, given that so many sociologists study gender, and other professional groups – and even other sociologists – may look to the association for guidance on their own terms. (The Modern Language Association, for example, asks new members on an optional survey if they are male, female, or "other.")

“[I]t 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.,” she wrote in her post.

The proposal – and the topic – are getting a fair amount of attention, and commenters don’t seem to agree on any one set of categories.

Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park and moderator of the sociology blog "Family Inequality," proposed offering female, male, and “write-in” categories, from which the association would code responses.

“There are a lot of label possibilities for the small number of individuals who don’t want to check male or female,” he said. “Why try bureaucratically to pre-specify all the options when the categories are contested, changing, and small?”

Some are critical of the association for not already having a better grasp of the terminology.

“First off, female and male are indications of sex and not gender,” wrote Jaime Becker, a lecturer in sociology at (and recent graduate of) the University of California at Davis. “ASA should know this.”

Becker proposed the following categories (check all that apply):

  • Woman
  • Man
  • Transgender
  • Genderqueer
  • __________

Emilia Lombardi, medical sociologist and assistant professor of health and physical education at Baldwin Wallace University, wrote: “Many people, many of them trans themselves, have been working on this issue for a while.”

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at the University of California at San Francisco recommend a two-question strategy, she said (the former in HIV surveillance). “One question identifies gender and another identifies sex at birth.”

Tey Meadow, a moderator of the Social (In)Queery blog who is completing a postdoctorate at Princeton University and will be an assistant professor of sociology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University in 2014, said in an interview that the two-question method has been standardized in public health literature, and easily could be adopted by the sociological association.

But the conversation still can be fruitful, Meadow added. “I think it’s really important, if sociology as a discipline claims that it can produce valid survey research, that it be at the vanguard of thinking about how that research is produced.”

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