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Health Team

What's your gender? I prefer not to say

Posted February 2, 2021 4:47 a.m. EST

— When it comes to filling out a form, I can write my name and address and birth date on autopilot without pause. But when I get to the gender question, a wave of anxiety washes over.

I am not transgender, nor have I ever felt like I was unhappy with the body I was born into (except for, say, the extra love handles or those wrinkles starting to form around the corners of my eyes). I am also not a proclaimed gender warrior who has taken up the cause to try to singlehandedly dismantle all the systems in place (bwa ha ha ha).

I have quietly, defeatedly checked the female box on forms for most of my life even though it never feels exactly right. It's like having to choose what vegetable you ate for dinner last night when the only choices are "carrot" or "broccoli," but you ate asparagus. You feel like you're being dishonest no matter what you choose.

I have always defaulted to female because it was the gender I was assigned at birth and how I have always identified myself to others, when others have required that I identify myself.

With the increase of people including their gender pronouns in their email signatures and social media profiles and round-robin intros in meetings and classrooms, it's great to know that we're becoming more aware that you can't just assume what someone's gender identity is. It's also true, though, that some people just don't fit into one of the commonly used pronouns, and others, like me, prefer not to share. So please, stop asking about my gender (or anyone else's, for that matter) when there is no good reason to know.

Some people don't fit neatly into a label

I have never really felt entirely male or female. I don't feel like I fit into any of the other many categories that have emerged more recently to describe people who don't fit into the binary. I am not nonbinary or gender nonconforming or two-spirit or gender queer or agender or any of the other 56 options that Facebook allows users to choose from. I don't really like labels. I am just me.

"Queer, trans, and cis people are all socialized from a very young age to make all of the same assumptions about themselves and others, and it's almost impossible not to internalize and project those assumptions on others to some extent," said Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York City-based psychotherapist and sex therapist.

"Because of that, it makes sense that queer and transgender and gender non-conforming people worry about people reading us the wrong way, because of how the majority often incorrectly reads our gender, or makes other assumptions based on the way our bodies are perceived," they said via email.

Knowing someone's gender isn't always necessary

When I am working my way through a seemingly ordinary form for a conference or customer service feedback, I have a visceral reaction each time one asks for my gender, particularly if there are only two options available. For one, I feel for my transgender and nonbinary friends and acquaintances who may be rendered invisible or else forced to translate who they are against who they believe the form owners are and what their expectations are.

"When our bodies and presentation is perceived incorrectly by others, it can be painful to be lumped in with a group we don't identify with, and it can be even more painful to be excluded from a group that we do identify with," Pitagora said.

I also question just why a survey about toothpaste or registration for a webinar asks for my gender in the first place. I understand why you need my email address or maybe even my geographic region, but what information could you possibly be gleaning from my gender? Will you market to me differently moving forward because of my presumed genitalia? Does the box I checked magically reveal to you all of my likes and interests and consumer behaviors?

"Can you please add more options than just male and female?" I finally asked one owner of a form seeking feedback after an event I attended when I had finally had enough. I didn't think I'd hear back. The reply I received wasn't expected.

"You know, now that I think about it, I don't know why we were asking for gender at all. I will take it out," the person who administered the form wrote back to me.

It felt like a breath of fresh air.

Most people probably don't realize how loaded questions like gender might be on their forms or surveys. The forms probably include them by default just like they do name or address or ZIP code. These folks may not even think about why they're actually asking for someone's gender or if or how they will even use what they collect.

Be sensitive to how others may be feeling

There are many reasons why someone might not be comfortable sharing pronouns.

Someone might feel like there are no pronouns that are a good fit, for instance, or that the assumptions that are made about their pronouns are not accurate for them, according to Jesse Kahn, a psychotherapist, sex therapist and director at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City. Additionally, some people may feel "a lack of safety; that sharing their pronouns will out them in a way they don't want," Kahn said.

"Additionally, there's often a cultural pressure to pick one set of pronouns and stick with that, and that fixed approach to pronouns doesn't fit or work for everyone."

Those of us who never questioned the gender they were assigned don't give much thought to the hypergendered world in which we live.

When I walk into the men's clothing section of a store, clerks often approach me and ask whether I am shopping for my husband. Or they presume I am male and then fumble to replace "sir" with "ma'am." Why should a letter on a document nearly four decades old dictate where I get to buy clothes? Or my kid's toys? Or so many other facets of life.

I point this out not to lay blame, but to call out the absurdity of the ways in which we assign gender in everyday life and don't even realize it. We pick up traditions that are long outdated and don't bother to examine and update them. We require people to tell us their gender all the time and we don't realize how that one question might be complicated and even harmful to some, particularly when we make them choose between the limited binary, male or female.

What can you do to help?

If we want to be more inclusive, we can start by "de-gendering language whenever possible, to retrain our brains away from the habit of making assumptions about people," Pitagora said.

Use words like "spouse" rather than "husband" or "wife;" "children" or "people," rather than "him" or "her."

"People will inevitably make mistakes, which is okay; we're human and we make mistakes. The trick is to not get stuck in the mistake, but to correct oneself and move on, because it doesn't have to be a big deal or focus of attention. These types of things normalize and destigmatize vocalizing how we want others to refer to us in terms of our gender," Pitagora said.

We can also be respectful in trying to use someone's pronouns correctly, and it sometimes helps to offer up your own first to show you are not making assumptions.

"It's one thing to use someone's pronouns correctly, and it's another to see someone as who they are and wish to be seen," Kahn said. "It can be helpful to think about the assumptions and ideals that you've internalized as to not project those assumptions and ideals on to others, both internally and externally."

That means not asking people for their "real" name or "preferred" pronouns, both of which strip others of their agency and presume that somehow who they are is not legitimate.

In general, we should approach everything with the lens of ensuring that it does not have a gender overlay, according to Lisa Kenney, a gender advisor based in the San Francisco Bay Area who, in her piece for the Harvard Business Review, pointed out that over 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender nonbinary and 25% of Generation Z expects to change their gender at least once in their lifetime.

We're looking at a shifting landscape that requires we examine the vestiges of yesteryear that we've been dragging along into the 21st century where it might have no rightful place.

You can also start in simple ways, like by taking a good look at that form you've created before you hit send to ensure you are only asking for someone's gender if you absolutely feel it's imperative to your objectives.

And, if you do include a gender question, for the love of all things holy, add a "prefer not to answer" option. This human, and many others, will thank you.

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