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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Question the questions

The Communities That Care survey should rethink questions regarding gender identity and sexual identity, according to a letter writer.

I am writing in response to Cathy Jewett’s letter “Young adults —have your say!” published in Pique, Feb. 11. 

Firstly, I want to say that I was pleased to see Communities That Care Whistler is collecting this important data. COVID-19 has certainly had a huge impact on all the young folk I know, particularly those who are also dealing with immigration instability. What I want to talk about is the “missing … key data from more than 100 responses about which sex they identify as.” Because there are many reasons people may choose not to answer this question. 

In the survey, the actual questions are: “What is your gender identity?” and “How would you describe your sexual orientation?” These are important distinctions to make as the term “sex” refers only to the male/female binary assigned at birth, based on whatever genital skin is clearly visible on the day. It’s an arbitrary and outdated signifier, and I’m glad the question as Cathy phrased it was not included in the survey. 

I have no doubt that the responses to these questions will be kept confidential, and that the surveyors have good intentions in asking them, but these are highly personal questions. 

For anyone struggling with or questioning their own gender or sexual identity, being asked to make a definitive choice on a survey can be triggering. It doesn’t matter how carefully worded the question is, or how many options are included, just simply asking these questions can cause stress and anxiety for folks who are still trying to answer these questions for themselves.

In her letter, Cathy explains that, “The data will be used to identify issues that are important to Whistlerites and areas they feel require more support.”

This is a general statement that refers to all of the information collected and is not reason enough to be asking someone about their sexual or gender identity. Why do they need to know how many survey respondents identify as “Woman (cisgender)” versus “Woman (transgender)”? Why is this granular level of information required? What specifically will it be used for? (Also, not everyone knows what cisgender means. Generally, cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.)

Before asking identity questions, an explanation should be provided as to why they are being asked and how the information will be used. 

They should only be asked when there is a specific need to collect the information. And if there is a specific need, there are often other ways to ask. For example, “Would you access support services designed for trans folk?” or “Would you access Queer-specific services?” Questions phrased in this way are less personal than asking an individual to identify (and label) themselves.

To anyone in a position of collecting demographic information, whether it be on a government form, a marketing questionnaire or even for health services, please consider if you actually need to ask individuals for gender information, and, if you do, please provide a detailed description of the reason the information is required. Because chances are, there’s a better question you could ask. 

Kate Heskett // Whistler