To Ask About Gender and Trans in Surveys

Many people approach RFSL and ask for advice about how they should ask about gender in surveys to be inclusive towards trans people and to avoid offend anyone. To construct good surveys is hard and questions about gender and trans can be sensitive for different reasons. To ask in a good way can decide whether you get answers to your survey or not.

Why ask about gender?

Start by thinking about why you want to ask about gender and what you really mean by asking. Often asking about gender is just routine and if you don’t plan on using the answers to that question for something in particular it’s ok not to ask about gender at all. Many times, however, it is relevant to ask about gender and trans experience. For example to find out how many women or men have answered the survey, or if trans people’s experiences of what you’re investigating are different from cis people’s.

Different meanings of gender

The term gender can mean many different things. It can mean legal gender, i.e. what is written in identity documents and can be deduced by the next to last number in the Swedish social security numbers. Everybody who is nationally registered in Sweden are registered either as a legal man or a legal woman. If it is legal gender you are asking about you can ask for that specifically. Do explain why the question is asked.

Be aware that the legal gender doesn’t always correspond with how a person is viewed by others. Someone who lives as, and by others is perceived as, a man can have the legal gender woman and vice versa.

Often the most important and most relevant meaning of the term gender is gender identity, i.e. what gender you yourself feel you have. There are many ways of defining your gender beyond man and woman, even though these two are the most common gender identities. You can describe and name different ways of identifying gender as options, but as they are so many and so few people would choose each and every alternative it only makes the survey and analysis of the answers complicated. Instead, you can ask like this:

What gender are you? By gender we mean gender identity, the gender you feel that you are. 

  1. Woman
  2. Man
  3. Other/both man and woman 
  4. Don’t know/don’t want to answer 

We recommend that you ask the question like this, with “other” and “don’t know/don’t want to answer” as separate alternatives so as not to add to the preconception that people that don’t view themselves as (only) man or woman are confused. They can, however, be combined in the analysis.

Another possibility is to let the question about gender be an open question, where the respondents themselves can formulate their answer freely without set alternatives. This is usually difficult to analyze.


To ask what someone’s body looks like and how it works, or what body parts someone was born with, is very private and seldom relevant. In exceptional cases it can be important to ask about bodily characteristics, for example in issues related to healthcare or research related to the appearance or function of the genitals. In such cases we recommend that you, in connection with the question, explain why the question is asked. It’s also important that the questions are asked in such a way that everybody can answer them. You need to clearly explain if the question is related to gender identity or to the appearance and function of genitalia. Men should, for example, be able to partake in surveys that concern gynecological care and women should be able to answer questions about problems with the prostate.

Other aspects of gender

There are several other aspects of the term gender, for example how you are perceived by others or what or which pronouns you are comfortable with. RFSL recommends that you only inquire after information that is really relevant in the context. Also be aware that the pronoun/s a person uses doesn’t necessarily say anything about the their gender identity.

To ask about trans

If you want to know if a person partaking in the survey is a trans person we recommend that that question is separated from the question of gender since trans is not a gender and because most trans people are, i.e. define as, men or women. After you have asked about gender, you could formulate a question like this:

Are you or do you have experience of being a trans person? 

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Don’t know/don’t want to answer 

Tendency to answer and anonymous answers

People who feel that the survey doesn’t address them, for example by not offering a suitable answer to the question of gender, will be less inclined to answer it. Being able to answer anonymously can also be a precondition to want to answer. For example a student in a classroom can quickly see if they are the only one in the class that is openly trans, and realize that their answers won’t be especially anonymous if they answer the question about trans in a survey that only targets the class. That is why it’s a good idea not to ask about trans in small groups where people can feel singled out. In such cases an alternative such as “other” or “don’t want to answer” is better.