As an amateur researcher in the field of Psychology, I was recently working on a
study that involved understanding a particular behavioural phenomenon by correlating it with gender. I prepared an online form to collect data for this study and sent it to a few people in my social circle. A friend of mine, that has only recently started identifying themself as non-binary, replied to me and said, “I..uh..identify as enby now. There is no option for me under the gender column to choose from.” Unfortunately, my instinctive conceptualization of the topic instantly led me to comparing the prevalence of the concerned phenomenon between men and women. Why? Because we have all been conditioned to view people through the binary lens of gender, i.e., men and women.
In order to compensate for my ignorance, I immediately tried to find pre-existing
literature on the topic I was studying, relating to the experiences of the so-called “other”
gender. To my disappointment, not even a single research paper was available on the same. It was an eye-opening experience for me and provided me with a reality check on how, not only the society, but also the “educated” academic community has failed to incorporate gender inclusivity in their work.
In India, all prime official data sources provide sex and gender related data following
the conventional binary model. This excludes people that don’t fall on the two ends of the
gender spectrum, such as non-binary, gender non-conforming and transgender individuals. This exclusion further affects their access to social security benefits and other services. Similarly, most researchers relying on primary collection of data from people tend to base their findings on data that is only collected from “men” and “women” participants. This prevents the experiences unique to the non-cisgender-binary section of our population from getting included in academic literature. One possible reason behind the lack of representation of non-binary and trans binary participants in research studies might be the fact that studying these groups is more difficult than studying cisgender binary people because the process of generalizing and categorizing behaviours into either “men” or “women” is relatively straightforward as men and women have been seen as sharing similar characteristics or experiences with their fellow gender members from time immemorial. For example, if a woman has experienced gender discrimination at the workplace, there is a good change that other working women have also had similar experiences in similar forms. On the other hand, the forms of gender expression and life experiences of the “other” genders are diverse and complex as they depend on a multitude of factors and identifications that vary from person to person. For example, just
looking at non-binary people, they could be someone who presents masculine/ feminine/androgynous; they could have any genitalia; they could be using any
pronouns; they could be generally perceived as a man or as a woman; they could be public with their identity and they could not. Similarly, they could or could not have body
dysmorphia; they could be on hormonal replacement therapy or not; they might have, or want to have gender-conforming surgery, while others might not.
Some might assert that the experiences of other genders could be more difficult to
study because apparently it is only recently that more and more people have started gaining awareness about the different forms of gender expression and identity other than the 2 conventional ones. However, applying the same logic, even Covid-19 is a recent
phenomenon, but it barely took researchers and policy makers any time to swamp their
respective fields with a repertoire of articles on the same. This just boils down to the fact that the “difficulty” of making the field of research more gender inclusive has got more to do with the lack of will and intent on the end of researchers than the actual technical aspects of such difficulties.
To make my study more inclusive, I could have taken the easy way out by adding a
third option, i.e., “other” under the gender column. However, the problem with a
man/woman/other gender classification is that it tries to move from a binary system to a
ternary system. This is even more ignorant because there is no “third gender.” People who
would be categorized under the “other” gender could fall anywhere in the man-to-woman spectrum, or even fall entirely out of it. This way, I would be trying to fit everyone that falls anywhere on the gender spectrum but the very ends under one label. It would superficially make my research more inclusive but I won’t really be able to draw meaningful conclusions from such data because the people who will be selecting the “other” option will have very varied experiences. This segregation of people into men, women and other is discriminatory in nature. By including the “other” category in official documents, forms and surveys, we are providing cisgender people categories to choose while segregating and “othering” the rest of the genders.
The friend I referred to above suggested that instead of listing “men” and “women” as
the gender categories, I could have used labels like “masculine presenting” and “feminine
presenting” or “perceived-as-male” and “perceived-as-female.” This would allow non-binary and gender non-conforming people to participate in my survey and share their experiences, and would not make them feel excluded.
As academics or researchers, it is an imperative for us to make attempts at creating
more gender inclusive work. “A non-binary approach to data is the bare minimum
requirement to acknowledge the existence of individuals who identify outside the binary
genders of male and female” (Brindaalakshmi).
-Gurman Kaur Chawla