Beyond the Binary

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

collecting gender identity data for transgender-competent evaluation

As the awareness of the complexity of gender becomes more prevalent, a male/female binary choice demographic is no longer sufficient to understand respondents’ gender. Creating an inclusive "gender question" requires a nuanced, evolving understanding of broader concepts of gender identity (i.e. how it is different from sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation). A trans-competent approach to collecting gender data is part of a larger shift towards cultural competence, which the American Evaluation Association frames as a “stance taken toward culture, not a discrete status or simple mastery of particular knowledge and skills."

Evaluators must also determine what information is actually needed for a particular study to guide development of an appropriate question. A demographic question might ask about gender identity, transgender status, or assigned sex, so evaluators must assess which of these is appropriate and relevant. Generally, unless the study is health-related, asking assigned sex is unnecessary and invasive. In most museum visitor studies, gender identity data will likely suffice. Van Matre writes this rule of thumb: “If you will not or cannot use information on someone’s sex or gender, you do not need to ask in the first place,” positing that it may sometimes be prudent not to ask about gender at all.

However, an institution may wish to include data on respondents’ trans status in order to assess its relationship with an underserved community. The American Alliance of Museums LGBTQ Welcome Guide notes that evaluation creates opportunities “to identify and incorporate the specific perspectives and needs of those LGBTQ communities we serve." GLSEN argues that trans-inclusive surveys can better situate decision-makers in ensuring equal access and “creating programs and implementing policies that meet the particular needs” of the trans community. Kari Greene and Emily Greytak note that any given program “is already serving transgender people—they just aren’t counted,” advocating for an evaluation protocol that recognizes all respondents. Asking for gender in a way that makes people of all genders feel welcomed or seen can help evaluators (and by extension, museums) better connect to trans communities and visitors.

Because our understanding of gender diversity is still developing, there are not yet widely accepted best practices for asking about gender in evaluation. Resources exist from various sources, but many of them are some combination of harmful and not useful due to the language used. For example, most resources available through AEA use language like “male” and “female” which, because they tend to denote assigned sex, not gender, can be confusing and result in responses that do not answer the intended question. Language used in the trans community to self-describe is constantly shifting as the community and its priorities evolve, and what was once acceptable language may be out of common usage or tied to an outdated understanding of gender or trans experiences.

This poses a problem; when the guidelines available to the evaluation community are outdated, well-meaning evaluators using them may inadvertently cause harm in their work. Language that is not up-to-date transforms a well-intentioned question into one that is exclusionary, invasive, or offensive, causing respondents to feel alienated or mistrustful, and harming a marginalized community. Rather than relying on these loose sets of "best" practices and copy-pasting highly flawed gender questions, then, evaluators can avoid these problems by actually engaging with the trans community to inform their work. The community is the best resource on how to ask about identity and what language or approaches are affirming or cause harm. Continuously gathering input from the trans community on how best to ask this question is ultimately the path to a “best practice” for developing a culturally appropriate question as the community and its language evolves.

My own identity as a trans person and emerging evaluator lend a unique perspective on gender questions in evaluation; my own experience and knowledge of the trans community has been my primary tool in assessing which of the many guidelines and resources available to the evaluation community (i.e. resources available through the American Evaluation Association) are useful or harmful. Unfortunately, most of these resources are several years old, and while the intent and approaches are largely sound, the language used may cause harm to the extent that they are rendered unusable. A fair assessment of the state of evaluation and research best practices for gender data comes from Jen Przewoznik: “We don’t know exactly what works, but we have a pretty good sense of what doesn’t."

Because of this, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend any particular resource as a go-to; any guidelines used should be re-assessed for relevance of approach and language. However, there are a few that resonate as potential jumping-off points for developing best practices going forward. LGBTQ youth organization GLSEN outlines multiple approaches to asking gender and trans status, including advantages and disadvantages of wording and response options that account for the nuances of gender diversity. The 2012 American Evaluation Association conference presentation “Don’t Ask, Can’t Report” outlines guiding principles for asking questions about gender, sex, and trans status. While much of the language is unfortunately outdated and should not be used in evaluation, the principles still apply. It recommends that questions “should not be stigmatizing or troublesome” and should “not conflate sexual orientation and gender;” it also recommends a check-all-that-apply approach and the option to either select “other” or write in a response.

My overall recommendation to approaching gender questions is threefold. Build relationships and deepen involvement with the transgender community to adopt appropriate, evolving language to ensure evaluation does no harm. Adopt a set of best-practice principles for asking any gender, sex, or transgender status question. Assess what information is needed for a given study and develop appropriate questions accordingly. A nuanced, community-informed approach to gender demographic data will ultimately strengthen evaluators’ ability to collect meaningful data about their respondents and allow museums to better connect with their communities.


American Alliance of Museums. (2016). LGBTQ Welcome Guide.

GLSEN. (2012). Assessing Transgender Status in Surveys of Adolescents (Research Brief). New York: GLSEN.

Greene, K., & Greytak, E. (2013, February 19). LGBT TIG Week: Kari Greene and Emily Greytak on Becoming More Transgender-inclusive in Your Evaluation Work. Retrieved from

Greytak, E., Gutierrez, E., & Greene, K. (2012). Don’t Ask, Can’t Report. Presented at the American Evaluation Association.

Przewoznik, J. (2015, February 16). Jen Przewoznik on Conducting Research With and within LGBTQI+ Communities: We Don’t Know Exactly What Works, but We Have a Pretty Good Sense of What Doesn’t. Retrieved from

Van Matre, J. (2017, October 18). LGBTQ Week: Do you need to ask about sex & gender on your survey? By Joseph Van Matre. Retrieved from


©2019 Johanna Berliner