Why We Are All Trans-(binary)-gender and the Myth of Cisgender

In many ways, this post seems at odds with recent psychology and coaching posts. However it’s really just a piece about how we think about the world and our inherent need to classify. Over the past few years I’ve noticed the word cisgender (and its variants used) and for a while have thought how deeply unhelpful it is. It is a flow of consciousness and no doubt will change over time. Constructive comments and insights are most welcome.

Defining cisgender

Cisgender offers a complement to transgender. It refers to people whose gender assigned at birth matches their own experience and sense of identity. The problem with cisgender is that it introduces yet another binary into how we think about sex and gender. It should also be noted that gender is not assigned at birth. A peek at the genitals is not gender. It’s a biological classification. It’s sex. They are different things.

Binary categories

Dichotomous thinking tells us very little of what is happening in the real world. It obscures more than it illuminates.We take a whole continuum of experence, turn it into binary opposites and throw out the middle bit. We then proceed to argue and explain how we can push everything from the excuded middle into our artifical socially constructed categories.

Transgender and its assumptions

Transgender is a description of when our gender identity (and experience) doesn’t match that assigned at birth. The question is, whose does?  The assumption is that transgender refers to the minority and cisgender to the majority. This is unhelpful and inaccurate. I maintain that we are all transgender since we all deviate from the norm to differing degrees. There is a spectrum of non-conformity. Cisgender can only refer to the illusive few who embody the traditional gender stereotype appropriate to a given culture (and their comfort with it). Cisgender is also heteronormative, since ‘normal’ gender is straight! So I question whether gay or bi people can be cisgender.

Cisgender obscures the fact that many ‘normal’ people struggle with notions of gender identity and gender conformity.  Many people do not live up to gender expectations. Many have grown up being bullied because they don’t ‘make the grade’ but don’t necessarily want to ‘switch sides’. I know some apologists for the term will argue that it’s intended to be neutral. The problem is that labels are rarely neutral and rarely used in the way ‘intended’. Once you apply binary categories, the grey areas are lost and (unfavourable) comparisons are inevitable. We have experienced diatribes about white privilege, about (biological) sex privilege and now we have cisgender privilege. To a person supposedly from all privileged categories who is still struggling to put food on the table, aerie-faerie academic-speak isn’t very helpful. Binaries always over-simplify.

Sex and gender are not the same thing

In 2009 at the time of the Caster Semenya World Championship controversy I wrote Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag!   The newspapers at the time, even the ‘quality press’ wrote about gender testing, when there is no such thing. Gender, as we know, is the social interpretation of biological sex. There isn’t really a test for that unless you count Kate Bornstein‘s questionnaire in My Gender Workbook and I hardly think that sports bodies will use that. They are more interested in chromosomes and hormones and the like, that is, biologcal sex. I was relieved that after taking the Borthstein’s test that I was designated gender outlaw. I was disappointed that I never made it to gender freak. However, I am reassured that I am definitely not cisgender! Although Bornstein’s test is rather facetious and the questions are all loaded, it makes some very important points. On a many occasions I got my students to complete the test. The strength of feeling that it provoked, especially among mature students was surprising.  Once they got the idea that the test was deliberately provocative, it challenged more hidden assumptions about sex and gender better thab any formal lecture could. The debates afterwards were always highly spirited.

More than two genders

Kate Bornstein and Martine Rothblatt were among the most influential writers for my doctoral research, alongside Alfred Kinsey, anthropologist Mary Douglas, psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Mark Simpson, the man who coined the term metrosexual. These are not names you find together everyday. As I was examining gender stereotypes, it’s not surprising that I looked to the work of trans* writers (Bornstein and Rothblatt). Interestingly Kate Bornstein was a trans woman (that is, male to female). However, more recently ‘she’ has stopped referring to herself as a woman. So this means it difficult to write about ‘hir’, unless I use the third gender term coined by Rothblatt.

In Bortstein’s scheme, there are not two genders. There are multiple genders, since the social interpretation of sex has so many variables to consider: sexuality, race, age, nationality, culture, class and so on. There is no norm except an illusive stereotype and how many people conform perfectly to that? More importantly, how many people struggle TO conform?

Metrosexuality is all about gender

Mark Simpson’s notion of metrosexuality is interesting because it’s really all about gender. It is about ‘heterosexual’ men who adopt the fashions and stylings of the ‘modern’ ‘homosexual’.  David Beckham is the poster boy for the metrosexual whose career as football player (alpha-career) allows us to ‘forgive’ him sitting around, pouting in his underpants wearing nail polish. The average ‘normal’ traditional man working in as less glamorous job might not be so easily forgiven.

A sprectrum of gender

In a previous post (Never Mind. . . the Great Procrustean Binary Gender Swindle) I referred to a trans woman blogger who had a lot of thought provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog was met with abuse from some trans people and it closed. She was saying pretty much the same Kate Bortstein is today. The main cut and thrust was that whereas many trans people decry the binary gender system, they are still advocates for it. If gender is a social interpretation of biological sex, how can you have surgery on your gender? Quite simply, you can’t. Is there not a third or fourth space we can occupy? Is there not a whole spectrum of gender?

All gender is a form of drag. It takes lots of plucking, posturing and preening and can be performed independently of genital arrangements. Many people have chosen to live as intersexed, third gender roles. None of this is a criticism (or judgement) of individual experiences. It is a criticism of how we construct sex and gender debates. These inform the many ‘hoops’ that trans people have to navigate in order to make a transition. Speaking recently to trans people they suggested that it is easier to get through the system if they present as ‘traditional types’. This trans men (female to male) wearing eyeliner get a tougher time than those in football tops.

The gender binary system is the epitome of idealism. For as long as we keep imposing binaries we obscure alternative viable options. I’ve analysed data from needs surveys for trans* people and worked with trans*people in coaching and workshops. What struck me most was the range of genders on display. Some more traditional and some more alternative with a spectrum of difference in between, From the needs analyses, it was sometimes difficult to summarise representative viewpoints. One of the overriding factors was individual experience. The commonalities were the need for respect, fairness, courtesy and acceptance. You don’t have to be transgender or cisgender to appreciate this.

Intolerance of ambiguity

Else Frenkel-Brunswik devised the concept of Intolerance of Ambiguity.  In essence it describes our varying need to apply binary categories and control for uncertainty. The critics wo say that we cannot function without labels are perhaps a little more intolerant of ambiguity. However in gender terms I fail to see how ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘transgender’ and ‘cisgender’ are helpful. What do these labels tell us? Yes, they allow us to point at things and name them out loud but what else? What of the ‘middle bit’ where the real people reside? Why should linguistic convenience override phenomenology. In gender terms, ambiguous means trans-normative.

Cisgender, no thanks.

As a term, cisgender came into being as an alternative for non-trans. Some writers prefer non-trans as it centres trans as the norm. Now while I agree that trans is the norm, I have a much broader definition of what trans means.I appreciate that we have to use linguistic devices to highlight the embedded assumptions in gender, it has merit but not at the expense of denying individual experience. Language frames our understanding of the world and we have to work within its limitations.However, I for one, deny that cisgender has anything meaningful to say about my experience. Give me ‘gender outlaw’ any day! Thank you Kate Bornstein.


Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. His PhD was entiled ‘Attitudes to Sexuality, Gender Stereotypes and Intolerance of Ambuiguity. The ideas found their way into his first book Sex, Lies and Stereotypes.



The Bare Necessities of Life (and Research) – What Can’t You Live Without?

I was asked (by a local radio station) to comment on the media ‘research’ story of the week: What are the things in life we can’t do with out?

(Obviously a slow week in research).

The results were:

Top 20 Bare Necessities of Life

  1. Internet connection
  2. Television
  3. A cuddle
  4. A trustworthy best friend
  5. Daily shower
  6. Central heating
  7. Cup of tea
  8. An “I love you” every now and then
  9. A solid marriage
  10. Car
  11. Spectacles
  12. Coffee
  13. Chocolate
  14. Night in on the sofa
  15. Glass of wine
  16. A good cry every now and then
  17. A full English breakfast
  18. A foreign holiday once a year
  19. iPhone
  20. A pint

Looking down the list I noticed two glaring omissions. I’d put oxygen and water pretty high on my own personal list followed closely by food. So it’s clear that questions were asked in a particular way to elicit more than just the bare necessities of life!

Gender Differences and People Studying People

A lot of press coverage has made a lot of the gender differences in responses rather than gender similarities. It’s clear for items to have appeared in the top places in the list then both men and women need to be in agreement. It’s not possible to determine if there was any interview bias in how questions were asked. Were the prompts or examples the same or was there a subtle nudge in the desired direction. This happens more than we think in any research involving human attitudes. Whole books have been written about the effects of people studying people. Prior expectation on part of the researcher influences results. Notice that ‘a solid marriage’ figures highly in the results despite traditional marriage being on the decline. It suggests that the sample is weighted towards married people or else the marriage equality (gay marriage) debate has influenced the results. Would people really mention central heating if we were having a glorious summer?

So we really need to take this ‘research’ with a pinch of salt. The warning signs should be an over emphasis on gender differences. It’s standard in most universities for undergraduates to factor in a bit of gender mainly because it’s the first thing that springs to mind and it’s easy to collect the data. Careful analysis of most of the gender differences in psychological research reveals that the crossover, that is what we have in common is greater than that on which we differ. It’s clear from the present survey that relationships and human contact figure highly for both men and women. Many items listed are about the simple pleasures in life such as a cup of tea. Yes I know that cynics might argue that people only listed cuddles (at 3) when the internet (1) and the TV (2) broke down!

An Opportunity to Reflect on Your Life and Values

So rather than considering this as ground-breaking research illuminating the modern-day human psyche, just think of it as than just a bit of fun to launch a DVD (which it is). Use it as a moment for reflection.  What is really important to you? Are there some bare necessities in your life that are getting crowded out by other pressures and pleasures. I’m always amazed when holidaying that around 8pm every evening almost everyone stops to view the sunset. It’s something we rarely seem to do when back home. It’s easy to take things for granted in our lives so that we only miss them when they are gone. Back to oxygen and water again!

So grab a nice cup of tea (or a beverage of choice) and make your own list of the top 20 things that you can easily do to improve the quality of your life. What distractions do you need to switch off to enjoy these moments of pleasure?

(In conversation with Trish Adudu, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 15/6/13)


Never Mind. . . the Great Procrustean Binary Gender Swindle

After publishing my Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine post, I checked the things automatically linked to it by WordPress and found a fascinating and brave post. I was going to add a comment of support, but the comments had been turned off. Not long after the whole blog disappeared. The writer, a trans woman, had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog had been subject to a lot of abuse, surprisingly from other trans people. I found a draft of this post languishing in the nether regions of my blog and decided to finish it off. I have lost contact with the blogger, so if you read this, please drop me a line.

Many people, trans and otherwise, criticise the binary model of gender. It used to irritate me no end at university when students designed experimental studies and just threw in ‘gender differences’ without justification. This underlying assumption that men and women do everything differently was rarely challenged in our psychology department. I began to disparagingly refer to such gender differences as ‘counting shirts and blouses’. I took great delight in challenging fellow PhD students looking at gender differences. My own PhD was on gender stereotypes and intolerance of ambiguity. Knowing full well what the answer would be I’d ask ‘Are you taking a social constructionist view of gender?’ On one occasion, one student became very animated as he karate-chopped the air shouting ‘No!Men and women! MEN AND WOMEN!” This tale was retold often in later lectures and tutorials, and much to the delight of one of my colleagues Dr Petra Boynton.

Some of the key influences on my early research were Martine Rothblatt and Kate Bornstein (both trans writers) and Mark Simpson, the writer who coined the term metrosexual. As an undergraduate I’d quoted from a Simpson piece in Deadline magazine (in 1994) with the provocative title ‘Coming Over All Queer’. It raised a few eyebrows in our rather conservative degree programme. These writers more than any helped me to the conclusion not that there was more than binary but perhaps more importantly, we don’t necessarily have to put a label on it.

I’m a natal male and I spent my formative years in a state of gender confusion as I described in Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine. Much of the ‘confusion’ caused me distress but I came to I interpret it and my lack of conformity as something special whereas no I realize that it was quite ordinary and quite common. We are all gender deviants because ‘true gender’ does not exist. Bornstein is on record as saying that she might not have made the transition from male to female had she known at the time that there were other options. This was also what the trans blogger was saying.

At a certain point in our cognitive development we achieve gender constancy. This is the certainty that boys become men and girls become women. Up until then, it’s quite ordinary to assume that people can swap back and forth between genders. The milestone is on average around five to seven years. So we can’t count as reliable evidence, any early childhood memories of gender identity confusion or discomfort. It happens to us all.

Confusion surrounding gender is exacerbated because the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are so often interchanged, when they are not the same thing at all. Sex is the biological designation based on physiology, whereas gender is the social interpretation of sex. Gender is not natural. Further problems occur because we deny any other options but binary gender. However, if we examine the biological evidence, there is not a neat divide between the sexes, there are definite shades of grey. This greyness is intensified when we consider the social interpretation of gender. Do all men have the same gender? Do all women have the same gender? Don’t factors such as age, ethnicity, education, upbringing, socio-economic class, sexuality all colour our gender to varying degrees?

We all have the right to feel comfortable in our own ‘gendered’ skin, but the chances of being able to do this are limited simply because we have limited options. It’s not gender democracy if you only get to vote for two parties in the same system.    Maybe the reason why I shelved this heretical piece was that I couldn’t figure out a way to word it without sounding like a homophobe, transphobe orbiphobe. In truth, I am a binariphobe. I think the rights of people transcend socially constructed boundaries. I don’t believe in homosexuality or bisexuality or heterosexuality. Fundamentally because I don’t recognize the either-or imperative. Biology has not produced a dichotomy. We did that. Reproductive differences and genital shape do not make a gender. Real life is much more complicated than (karate chops air) ‘Men and Women. MEN AND WOMEN!’

The trans blogger made the point that many trans people decry binary gender because they were born into the wrong one. It’s a challenge to suggest that maybe they weren’t. Maybe the gender you got was your unique gender.  Many people have made the choice not to succumb to the Procrustean system and inhabit a gender place in  the ‘grey area’ (or ‘Technicolor area’). Some people have become their own immaculate conception. Their gender, sexuality and physiology do not line up according to the black-and-white rule. They have made a decision to occupy the middle-ground, which is, after all, where we all are anyway. I think it’s more important to respect and value people’s spot on the gender continuum rather than fight for a system that limits diversity and our options.

After completing Kate Bornstein’s gender quiz in My Gender Workbook, I was thrilled with my designation of gender freak. Throughout the quiz I was dreading the prospect of being ‘normal. It’s a shame that the trans blogger was ‘persuaded off’ the blogosphere by a few people who see it as their ‘god-given’ right to police binary gender boundaries. It’s a great fear that if we let go of labels we will all disappear. Without gender binary divisions the concept of transgender would be less meaningful. Making a transition from one state to its polar opposite reinforces binary gender as much as it challenges it. Again the same applies to sexuality. We can only swing both ways if there are only two ways. Sometimes we fight for something that’s at the root of the oppression.

I recognize that I am still more traditionally gendered than I would like to be. I’m still working on it. There are still options open to the ‘other side’ that I would like to enjoy. However the barrier has much more to do with social convention  than it does with the shape of my genitals.


Kate Bornstein’s Memoir: Queer and Pleasant Danger

Poem: Anatomy of Doubt

Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham  is a research project commissioned by Birmingham City Council to map the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) community in the city. The data were collected over a five month period via an on-line survey by the charity Birmingham LGBT, and I analysed them. Essentially, the report aims to fill a gap in knowledge. Previously there were no data available to assess the needs of the LGBT community. The Equality Act 2010 has created the impetus to gather information to ensure equality of service provision.
The research comes at an exciting time for the city. Birmingham LGBT won a substantial grant from the Big Lottery Fund to establish an LGBT Health and Wellbeing Centre to act as a ‘one stop shop’ for the community and community groups, and will work with other service providers to address health inequalities within the LGBT Community.
Amongst the findings, Out and About indicated that one in five respondents had attempted suicide and more than one in five had self harmed. Both of these were more likely if the people had been victims of hate crimes. Cohort comparisons for experiences at school indicated that the younger cohort (under 35s) were more likely to have been ‘out’ at school than were the older cohort (35+) but also more likely to have been bullied. The general picture was of a paucity of information and resources at schools on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a lack of active strategies in schools to tackle homophobia. The report calls for improvements in education provision to tackle homophobia and awareness raising.
Out & About also offers recommendations for improving the LGBT cultural appeal of Birmingham. The first step is simply that Birmingham needs to take a leaf out of the book of its festival of queer culture (now in its third year) and promote itself more effectively and *Shout! about what the city has to offer.

Measuring Sexual Identity: Fundamentally Flawed, Practically Worthless, Irresponsible or Dangerous?

What’s wrong with ‘Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report’ (2010) from the Office for National Statistics?

Well for starters, the authors admit that its methodology is fundamentally flawed by using a single measure and if they had they used a more appropriate measure then the figures for gay, lesbian and bisexual would most likely have been higher! The report misleads over refusal rates and does not adequate addresses the age, emplyment status, education, and ethnicity biases in its figures. In spite of evidence to the contrary the authors slap themselves on the back for a success’ whereas they should be slapping each other in the face for this unmitigated disaster.

Having taught statistics in several UK universities at all levels and  with a PhD in gender stereotypes and attitudes to sexuality (from an accredited university), I recognise, in this report,  many of  pitfalls I’ve taught undergraduate psychology students to avoid.  If it was an undergraduate report, I’d struggle to give it a ‘pass’. So let’s look at some of the main problems:

Attraction, Behaviour, Orientation, Identity
The report distinguishes between sexual attraction, sexual identity,  sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. So the expectation is that the report will take a multidimensional approach. However, it does not.  It states that whereas legislation focuses on sexual orientation, the report choses to look at sexual identity. It  also clearly states that behaviour may not form a basis for identity but goes on to argue:

‘Research during the development of the question also deemed sexual identity the most relevant dimension of sexual orientation to investigate given its relation to experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ (p4).

Unfortunately, the research on which this conclusion is based is by the Office for National Statistics. It’s a classic example of groupthink. Much cutting edge research would dispute this assumption.  I certainly dispute it. It became clear very early on in my research that a single question to measure sexual identity or sexual orientation, at best would be misleading. So I didn’t.  It could be considered irresponsible to publish  research based on an imappropriate tool. In fact, the curremt report probably would not be published in any peer reviewed journal.

This report warns:

“[N}o single question would capture the full complexity of sexual orientation. A suite of questions would be necessary to collect data on the different dimensions of sexual orientation, and to examine consistency between them at the individual level (p4).”

The report goes ahead and uses a single question anyway! Whether or not a person labels their sexual orientation should not be the issue where ‘experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ are concerned. Clearly, the reluctance to feel able to or be comfortable in declaring one’s sexuality is also a form of disadvantage and an aspect of discrimination. The current approach distorts the issue through over simplification.

So what’s the difference between attraction, behaviour, orientation and identity. Well, identity is how we describe ourselves or how others label us. Well people who are attracted to the same gender might not act upon it. People who act upon sexual attraction may do so in very specific circumstances. Orientation may be indicated by attraction, behaviour or a label with which a person identifies. I would argue that behaviour and attraction are more important than the label a person uses. For instance, in sexual health there is a recognised category of ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM), who do not identify as gay. They see themselves as straight men who occasionally have sex with other men. The rest of the time they lead ‘straight’ lives. In sexual health services and health promotions, ‘men who have sex with men’ are at risk from sexual transmitted infections, and are targeted as a specific group.  However, assumptions made by this report concluded:

“Testing showed that respondents were not in favour of asking about sexual behaviour in a social survey context, nor would it be appropriate in general purpose government surveys (p4)”.

Again, this conclusion was based on reports from the Office for National Statistics.  In the present study, worryingly, the authors state:

‘As in the UK, deriving an individuals sexual orientation from a suite of questions results in higher LGB estimates in the US compared with using a single sexual identity question (p15)’

It is accepted in attitude measurement that single item responses are unsuitable.  Using a multiple response measure, properly administered would produce a more accurate figure. Furthermore, research suggests that this figure would have been higher.The figures cited in the report for more methodological sound research range from 5% to 9% ( Joloza, Evans and O’Brien, 2010, p15). The current report says 1.5%.

In a survey with such political impact, the decision to use a single item is ill-advised and  arguably reckless. Research convenience should not compromise validity. In this instance, it does.

Sensitivity of Measurement
Having abandoned the methodologically sound approach of using a ‘suite’ of questions, one might hope that at least the report would use a sensitive measure beyond crude, simplistic nominal categories. Actually no. In the 1940s, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey developed a more sensitive  ‘sliding scale’ of sexuality. Instead, the present researchers ignore this and opt for the bluntest of instruments: Straight, gay or bi. This report didn’t even bother to include transgender in its analysis.

Firstly, consider the approach of ‘measuring’ ethnicity based on a ‘Black, White or Mixed’ categorisation. How accurately would this categorisation produce a representation of ethnicity in the UK? Any reputable survey offers a whole range of options for ethnicity with quite subtle distinctions. Even then, people may declare ‘other’. I would argue that sexuality is more complex than ethnicity.  So why is measurement tool in the present report, measurably more simplistic? The answers is: ‘because the study has not been properly designed to fit the subject matter’. It has little or no ecological validity, that is, it means very little in the real world, except perhaps to fuel prejudice.

The Kinsey scale requires a respondent to use a zero to six scale. Where zero equals ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and six equals ‘exclusively gay’.  This gives varying degrees of bisexuality, that is, from one to five. Now clearly, these sensitive data can be collapsed into cruder categories if needs be. The problem with collecting crude data from the outset, is that we can do little else with it. It offers nothing very meaningful just the willingless of people to use a limited set of labels.

Now imagine, we take three measures of attraction, behaviour and identity all of the sliding ‘zero to six’ scale. Wouldn’t this be a far more accurate reflection of a person’s sexuality orientation? It’s just a pity they didn’t do it in their report for the Office of National Statistics. Would it produce a higher percentage of lesbian, gay and bisexual people? Well, Joloza, Evans and O’Brien (2010, p15) would probably say ‘yes’. So why didn’t they do it?

So what exactly does this study measure? Well it doesn’t measure sexual identity in the UK. It measures the percentage of people sampled  who are willing to declare a sexual identity label from a limited choice  in interviews, with or without others present, in a particular time frame (for a study with poor ecological validity).

But the problems don’t end there. The report also reveals questionable interpretation from by its authors.

Confidentially and the Willingness to Respond
One statistic almost jumps out of the page to indicate that there’s something wrong with this study:

[P]eople (aged 16 and over) who identified as LGB had a younger age distribution than heterosexuals – 64.9 per cent were aged under 45 compared with 48.6 per cent of people who identify as heterosexual (p16).

In other words, younger people are more likely to report a ‘non-heterosexual’ identity than are older people. With no evidence to support the notion that older people are less likely to be gay, it has to be an artifact of this research. That is, older people either don’t identify with a ‘gay, lesbian or bisexual’ so readily, or are not so predisposed to tell a stranger with a clipboard. As such, the one-shot sexual identity is not fit for purpose. It’s possible that older people are more likely to remember the days before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and police entrapment strategies. It’s possible that they don’t use the word ‘gay’ and may prefer ‘homosexual’. It’s possible that they don’t like to divulge personal information to strangers unless absolutely necessary. There are definitely confounding variables at play and not just age.

According to this study gay, lesbian and bisexual have better jobs and are better educated. Again, the myth of the pink surfaces. Could it not be that young, well-educated, finnacially secure people are more likely to divulge their LGB sexual identity to a stranger? This means that less-empowered people more in need of support and services are not. Again the one-shot measure doesn’t appear to do its job.

The report makes a claim in the face of its own evidence that confidentiality basing this on the refusal rate:

There is no evidence of an adverse impact on response rates confirming the general acceptance of the question. Our analysis suggests response rates are broadly in line with earlier quantitative testing. Non response to the question was low with less than 4 per cent of eligible respondents refusing to answer, saying they did not know the answer or not providing a response  (p26).

Perhaps this  should read  ‘no adverse impact on response rates, except for older, less financially secure, not-so-well educated, non-professionals’.  For those in routine and manual occupations, the most frequent response to the sexual identity question was ‘other’ at 31.1%, more ‘popular’ than heterosexual at 29.4%. Almost a half (49.1%) of those who identified as gay and lesbian had managerial or professional occupations, compared to less than a third (30.6%) who identified as heterosexual/straight? Furthermore, 38.1% of Gay/Lesbian had a degree compared with only 21.9% of Heterosexual/Straight. Doesn’t all this seem odd? Yes! It suggests a significant bias in the sampling, the method and the results. In short, the flaws are evident but largely overlooked by the authors. Failure to do this in an undergraduate report would be severely penalised. But far more is at stake here. This report may inform social policy!

Looking at ethnicity, there’s a bias here too. For Heterosexual/Straight people 90.7% are White, whereas for Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual its 93.5%. However, for the ‘Other’ category for sexual identity, 14.1% are ‘other ethnic group’. For the ‘Don’t knows’, the figure for ‘other ethnic group’ is 18.2%. People from ‘Other ethnic groups’ were almost twice as likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as say ‘Heterosexual’ (9.3%). They were almost three times more likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’ (6.5%). This suggests either a reluctance to declare sexuality or that they did not understand what the terms meant. Either way, it’s a shortcoming of this research.

It’s interesting to note that option one on the interviewers card (market research style) was ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ and option two was  the less formal ‘Gay or Lesbian’, with option three as ‘Bisexual’. It’s interesting that whereas ‘both terms in option one and three can be applied to either men or women. For option two, you can’t have a lesbian man!The options do not use comparable terminology. If different terminology had been used, would the results have been different? If the options had been re-ordered, would the results have been different?Why is heterosexual the first option? Did this slightly increase the heterosexual figure. Research into research and experimter bias suggests it might.  Had the survey not been carried out in a market research format would the results have been different?Did interviewer the tone of voice affect the way in which the questions were answered. I’s done endless market research interviewers on the street and most of the time I can work out what the researcher ‘wants’ me to say. Are you heterosexual <smiles with rising intonation? or gay <frowns, with falling intonation> or bisexual <spits>? It’s a slight exageration but it does happen.

Now let’s turn to the ‘less than four per cent refusal rate’ that caused the authors to discard the other evidence.

The authors state:

‘Prior to developing and testing work on the sexual identity question, the expectation was that the higher the number of adults in the household, the higher the proportion of item non response. This is be because some household members might be reluctant to disclose their sexual identity in the presence of others. However, the results from the IHS do not indicate this (p12).’

However they don’t make the connection between non-response rates and the willingness to declare a true label:

‘Another observation here is that the proportion of people reporting to be LGB in a household decreases as the number of adults in the household increases. There is currently no explanation why this is the case but this is something that could be considered for further investigation in future (p12)’.

One explanation might be that, the more people in the house the less likely people are to declare themselves to be ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’. They didn’t necessarily refuse they may have felt the need to protect their own privacy and lied or said ‘don’t know’.

So for people identifying as the as the number of people living in the house increases, the figure for ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ increases slightly. For Gay/Lesbian it falls from 1.3% in a single person household to only 0.3% in a four person plus household. The figures for Bisexual remain roughly the same. For ‘Don’t Know/Refusal’ the figures increase slightly as the number of people in the house increases.  This suggests that there is an element of self-censorship in responses.

Think about it logically. If you want to keep your sexual identity secret from other members of the house, do you ‘refuse’ and cause the other house members to ask why, or do you just lie?  Or if you live a ‘heterosexual’ life for 95% of the time and have recreational sex, exactly how do you respond to the stranger on the door step with the crude market research question?

What’s clear is that the current report has not adequately addressed the numerous problems it has generated with an inappropriate methodology for a complex subject. White, Black and Mixed would not be good enough for ethicoity, so why is it good enough here, for a subject arguable more sensitive and complex?

It’s important to remember that the Kinsey Team in he 1940s put the gay and bisexual figure as high as 37%. Of course the sampling has been criticised over the years. It probably did lead to an overestimation. Nevertheless the measure on which the Kinsey team based their research was exemplary. A one-shot question does not work for something as complex as human sexuality. The Kinsey measurement was complex and fit for purpose. It is not good enough to side step the issue of instrument accuracy with protests of convenience and acceptability to researchers. Rather than go for the easy, convenient option, get better researchers and design a better study where appropriate measures can be used.  Otherwise all you get is conveniently produced meaningless results. Garbage in, garbage out.

So is this report, fundamentally flawed, practically worthless, irresponsible or dangerous? In my professional opinion, considering the plitical climate, I’d have to say that it’s all of those things. The ONS needs to stop engaging in groupthink and stop treating the complex notion of sexual orientation as some crass market research exercise.  Patting themselves on the back, the authors conclude:

‘The introduction of the sexual identity question. . .  in January 2009 followed rigorous testing and feasibility testing by ONS. The findings of this report suggest its implementation on the IHS in the first year has been a success (p26)’.

A success why what standards? Certainly not of academic rigour. We need high quality research data on which to make sense of our world and inform our social policy decisions. Sadly, this report fails to deliver and cannot be treated as anything other than a pilot study from which serious lessons need to be learned.  The simplistic method does not work evidenced by the reports own figures. It fails to meet the standards of an undergraduate report, on which one can only conclude ‘must do better next time’. Sadly, the decision not to consider the ethical ramifications of publishing a flawed report is inexcusable and sheds light on the ability of the ONS to produce high quality data. It’s argubale negligence. Researchers have a responsiblity to consider how their research will be used. The ONS has  failed to recognise its responsibility.

Maybe it does  not commit the sin of commission of homophobia but it does commit the sin of omission in that it justifies the heterosexist ideology of rendering invisible sexual diversity.

So if we add in the refusals and the don’t knows, if we adjust the figures for age, ethnicity, education, profession and number of people in the household, what exactly would the figue be for ‘non-heterosexuals’? Well, your guess is as good as mine.  It’s disappointing that this overblown, expensive pilot study has thrown up more questions than it answers, and we are back to simply ‘guessing’.


Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report