Nobody Asked: Gathering personal information
Updated: Mar 13
Occasionally we do a post on a topic that hasn't been submitted as a question but that we want to cover anyway. Perhaps it's an issue that comes up frequently in our experience; perhaps it's something that we don't think people ask about enough and should be more aware of. Today on Nobody Asked, S will explain how to ask for information such as name, gender, and pronouns in a way that minimizes harm to trans and gender diverse people.
It's not unusual to need people to supply personal information (job applications, event registrations, etc.), but this is a very common way to make trans and gender diverse people uncomfortable or even unsafe. Often, this sort of harm is through ignorance rather than intent; it happens when nobody involved in creating a form remembered that trans and gender diverse people exist. (This is one reason why it's so important to have diverse groups of employees and such, but that's another conversation.) Fortunately, this one is a pretty easy fix, since it isn't actually difficult to ask for this type of information in a respectful and inclusive way.
Ask for only the information that you absolutely need, at the point at which you need it. Whether you're creating new documentation or revising existing materials, think carefully about what you should even include. Do you need to know the gender of someone applying for a library card? You do not. Remove that field entirely. Do you need to know the legal name of conference attendees? Perhaps, but only for the registration payment page, so don't ask for it anywhere else. Go through each field and think through its purpose, and remove anything without a specific use. These uses are probably less common than you think, and err on the side of not asking (I'm of the opinion that there shouldn't be a gender field on driver licenses and passports at all, and something like a work ID should not require one's legal name). Don't try to think of reasons that you might potentially want information, just what you have a current and definite use for. If you end up needing other information later, you can ask for it then.
Make fields optional whenever possible. Flexibility is a good idea, since it means that people can choose what they are comfortable sharing (use the following two steps to give them the tools to make informed decisions). For example, pronoun fields are a good idea in many cases, but they should never be required. Some people might want a salutation field if being called "Mrs." or "Dr." or what-have-you is important to them; a lot won't want to put anything there at all. Any personal information that you don't absolutely need to move forward should be optional.
Use open-ended questions. There are a lot of different pronouns, and probably even more different genders. No multiple choice format is going to cover all of them, and a list of twenty terms can be as othering as a list of two if one is still not represented on it. I've been very cranky about how many salutation fields (which shouldn't be required at all but often are) don't include the non-gendered option "Mx.," thus forcing me to misgender myself in order to complete the form. The only way to make sure that everyone can supply the information they want to is to make all of these fields fill-in-the-blank as well as optional. Plus, the responses will be more accurate that way because you'll get the information people actually want to share instead of the least-inaccurate of the options supplied.
Be clear and specific about what you are asking. A lot of the common fields on application forms and such are actually ambiguous, which can be confusing and stressful. Does "Name" mean legal name, or name of use (this is the name that someone goes by, which may or may not match their legal name)? Does "gender" or "sex" mean gender identity? The marker on a birth certificate? The marker on other documentation, which may be different? To demonstrate, my birth certificate says F, my driver's license and passport say M, and my actual gender is somewhere between it's complicated and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I don't know what my legal gender technically is at this point. In addition to clarity to minimize stress, sometimes you're seeking answers to one interpretation of a question but not another. If you intend to ask for only someone's name of use or gender identity, it's not helpful or appropriate to leave people thinking you are asking for their legal name or legal gender. Do the research to learn how to ask for the information you actually need, and choose language accordingly. This goes both ways, two; some people may not understand what "name of use" means, so it helps to explain that.
Let people know who will see the information they share, and why you are asking. For a lot of trans and gender diverse people, sharing our legal name or gender or pronouns outs us, which can be uncomfortable and/or dangerous. If you ask for this information, it can help to know why it is necessary and who will have access to it. During my early job hunts, I wasn't sure whether search committees would see the demographic surveys that most employers include at the end of application forms; it would have helped enormously to know that the information would be anonymized for EEOC purposes, not shared publicly. If you're including an optional pronoun field on a conference registration with the intent of printing them on badges, state this with the field so people can decide whether they want that. If HR needs a candidate's legal name for a background check, ask for this only at the point when you need it, explain the purpose when you ask for the name, and mention that it will not be shared with other employees (though only if this is actually true, obviously).
Do not share personal information without consent. Expanding on that last parenthetical, if you tell someone how information will be used, do not then go do something else with it. It's generally horrible, an awful breach of trust, and sometimes dangerous to share information that could out someone, or just that they don't want shared, without their knowledge or permission.
Use the information when it has been provided. Go ahead and put an optional pronoun field on your applications, but then take the steps to make sure people respect it. I'd argue that it is actually worse to make someone feel like they're going to be addressed respectfully on the paperwork and then fail to do that in person. This probably requires workplace training on gender inclusion. (I wrote something of a rant about this after being on a search committee where applicants supplied their pronouns on the form provided, but most of the committee used the wrong ones regardless.)
To demonstrate, here are some examples of how to ask for personal information in different contexts. Of course, these aren't comprehensive and should be adapted to suit your needs; they are intended to demonstrate how the guidelines above can be implemented. Note that all of these fields are intended to be fill-in-the-blank.
Name of use (the name you want us to call you):
Name of use (the name you want us to call you):
Legal name (this will be used by HR for your paycheck and background check but will not be shared with anyone else):
Gender information (all fields are optional; answers will be anonymized and will not be shown to the search committee)
Do you identify as trans or gender diverse?
Name of use (the name you want printed on your badge):
Pronouns (optional; these will be printed on your event badge):
Name on credit card (this will be used to charge the registration fee but will not be shared otherwise):