Gender & Sexual Diversity: Why ALL Social Scientists Should be Conducting Inclusive Research

Written by:  J. Stewart, North Carolina State University, member of the APAGS Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity

lgbtq-2495947_1920Did you know that the current administration recently eliminated a proposal to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the 2020 U.S. census survey? You may or may not realize that doing so poses potentially serious threats to the rights of many Americans through this powerful form of erasure. Without this data, we will continue to have only rough estimates of the number of LGBTQ+ people living in the U.S.

As stigma surrounding sexual minority identities has lessened over the last few decades, many psychologists and social scientists across specialties are increasingly encountering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) participants in research conducted in general populations. As researchers who strive to maintain a certain neutrality when collecting and interpreting data, the degree to which we can actively further an equal rights agenda in conducting the research is limited. However, through the small, yet impactful act of prioritizing inclusivity in research practices, social scientists can help to challenge systems of oppression while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the science.

By merely (yet accurately) recognizing the diversity that exists with regard to people’s sexualities, we can both affirm the identities of people of those experiences and signal to all participants that such experiences are present and valid. This can be accomplished, for example, through the use of inclusive language in surveys and offering more options than just the typical “male/female” and “straight/gay/lesbian” for possible answers to demographic questions. When phrasing questions in binary terms or restricting demographic responses, researchers may inadvertently oppress gender and sexual minority individuals by reinforcing binary conceptions of gender and imposing limited characterizations of sexual orientation.

Dismantling these systems calls for a paradigm shift within every social sphere—including scientific research. Consider the ways in which social science informs public policy. If we do not produce research that reflects the diversity that we know exists in our society, the public institutions that draw upon that research will continue to marginalize that diversity. Given the historical role science has played in oppression, we have an ethical imperative to do better.

Here are ten things that you can do to integrate inclusive research practices into your next study:

  1. When asking about demographic information, always include a “something else: ________” response option in which the participant can write in how they would prefer to answer. While it is best to offer several atypical options for these questions, occasionally there are circumstances in research that require brevity, but at minimum, always provide the “something else: ________” option.
  2. Keep in mind three key facets of sexual orientation: self-labeling (what term(s) a person uses to describe their identity), behavior (who a person dates, has sex with, etc) and attractions (for whom a person internally feels sexual and/or romantic desire). Know that these elements do not always align (e.g. lesbian women who have sex with men). Therefore, it is best not to assume sexual behavior or attraction based on self-labeled orientation alone, or vice versa.
  3. Moreover, when it comes to sexual health, behavior determines outcomes, not identity. For example, although gay men are disproportionately affected by HIV, that does not mean that all gay men are engaging in behaviors that put them at high risk for HIV. Conversely, a heterosexual man may be having unprotected sex with men.
  4. Know that transgender is an umbrella term. While some trans people identify with the binary gender other than what they were assigned at birth, many trans people identify with terms such as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc. Regardless of the label a person uses, don’t make any assumptions about whether or not they have, are in the process of, or ever will medically transition.
  5. Know that queer is also an umbrella term, which some people use to describe their gender identity, sexual orientation, both, or even other elements of their sexuality (e.g. polyamorous, kinky). Don’t make further assumptions – such as the assumption that one is transgender or bisexual – based on a queer identification. Provide a fill-in-the-blank option for persons to clarify what queer means for their identity, and consider responses before collapsing all “something else” identifications into a queer monolith for analyses.
  6. Don’t assume that just because a participant indicates that they are married that they are cisgender, straight, and/or monogamous. Also, don’t assume all people in relationships acknowledge “cheating” or “infidelity” in consistent terms.
  7. If conducting in-person surveys or interviews, ask all participants what their preferred gender pronoun is in a routine manner. Defining what a pronoun is can help to avoid any confusion for participants not familiar with the question. For example, you can ask, “What gender pronoun do you prefer to be called? For example, she/her, they/them, he/him, ze/zir, etc.”
  8. Use gender inclusive language throughout your surveys. Avoid referring to “men and women,” “boys and girls,” “girlfriend/boyfriend,” or “husband/wife” unless you have a specific reason to do so. Instead, use inclusive terms like “people,” “everyone,” “students,” “clients,” “children,” “teens,” “partner,” or “spouse.” Also, the pronoun “they” is recognized as grammatically correct by the Oxford English Dictionary for both singular and plural use.
  9. If you are excluding a group of people from recruitment or analyses, you need to have a very specific reason why. Simply to minimize variance does not suffice as an explanation!
  10. Know that standards of inclusivity continually evolve. As an inclusive researcher, be sure to periodically check up on current gender and sexuality terminology. Here’s a comprehensive list of LGBTQ+ vocabulary definitions.