Imagine registering to see a doctor or a solicitor, applying for a job, or any other process where you are asked to supply personal information. Imagine that on the form provided for this information, the titles you can select from are: Mr, Other (please specify). Imagine that the genders you can select form are: Male, Other (please specify).
It would feel odd, to say the least, if women were not reflected on the form, either by titles or biological sex. It would strongly suggest that the people who had designed the form didn’t really think that women were likely to use the service, get the job, or whatever; and that if they did apply or register, it didn’t really matter whether they felt included or welcomed. You might expect that women would end up sensing that the service being delivered was focused on the needs of men – and that biological sex and gender were not considered important as factors informing good service delivery.
Gender is a key defining attribute for most of us: as Freud once famously stated, ‘When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is “male or female?” and you are accustomed to making the distinction with unhesitating certainty.’1 Until very recently, men benefitted from automatic privileges denied to women (the right to vote, own property, work…) – and women are still not, in many instances, accorded equality in important spheres of life. So a form which implied that ‘Male’ was the only gender category that the service provider was interested in would clearly risk communicating adherence to unexamined and unrecognised misogyny and sexism.
Gender is only a starting point – albeit a crucial one. Too often, a default assumption linked to ‘male’ is still ‘masculine’ and ‘heterosexual’ (at least in terms of an implied expectation). I have been asked several times, when making travel/hotel bookings over the telephone, for my wife’s details, and have sensed a definite surprise when I provide my husband’s instead. Such experiences reflect the unquestioned assumptions (in this case, heterosexism) that many individuals, organisations and institutions still utilise to construct a version of the world that oversimplifies and generalises. It takes effort to remember that our own particular constructs about how people define themselves are not ‘reality’, and that for others, aspects of identity about which we have barely even reflected, may be key.
How many asexual clients registered with your service last year? How many lesbians? What about queer students? Here at the University of Birmingham the answers to those questions are:
- Asexual: 10
- Lesbians: Nine
- Queer: Eight
And how many non-binary gendered students registered with your service last year? The answer for us is two. These are small numbers. So why should we even bother recording this information?
I go back to my initial point. If you are a cisgendered woman (ie, a woman who has an ongoing psychological and emotional identification as female), yet are presented with a form which has ‘male’ as the default option, that is going to impact how you feel towards the service provider. You would, if you decided to go ahead and use that service, be suspicious about whether anyone you met had even considered your needs as a woman. You might feel like a square peg being hammered into a round hole.
For a young student who identifies as queer, the opportunity to communicate their identity on a registration form can be extremely important in determining how they feel towards the service we provide. Offering a chance for clients to identify themselves in a way which reflects their lived reality, rather than conforming to out-of-date demographics, tells them that we, as a service, think about them and their needs; that we take them seriously; that we do not assume heterosexuality or expect that all our clients are cisgendered.
Equally important is the possibility that such statistics provide us with data to influence the wider HE community. From 2015/16 UCAS will be providing the option for students to disclose their sexual orientation when they apply for university places, and this will – at last – enable the possibility of exploring whether, and to what extent, being part of a sexual or gender minority impacts on academic performance. We know that Black Minority Ethnic (BME) students’ performance in universities is typically lower than their white counterparts’2,3,4,5 and as a result of this knowledge, research is being carried out to understand why this is so and what can be done to redress the situation. But we have no idea whether lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer (LGBTQ), or trans* students’ performance is similarly affected, despite much literature which attests to the stresses and strains of being part of such minority groups: is this because we don’t care, are not interested, or have simply never even thought to ask the question? (the asterisk makes special note in an effort to include all transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming identities, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer’).
As providers of counselling, we are often working with students who are questioning their identity, who are in the process of deciding who they are and who they might want to be. Facebook now has 71 (yes, 71!) different categories for individuals to choose from in describing their gender identity.6 We can perhaps learn from the spirit behind such generosity and think about how we provide opportunities for our clients to describe themselves to us: ‘Gender identities are complex and for many people, describing themselves as just a man or just a woman has always been inadequate… The Court of European Rights has upheld the right to develop our gender identity as key to our personal autonomy.’6 Words which our clients here in Birmingham have elected to use in describing their gender identity/sexual orientation include: gender queer; agender; non-binary; pansexual; autochorissexual; transfemale. Fourteen per cent of our clients to date in 2014/15 have a sexual orientation other than ‘heterosexual’ and one per cent have a gender identity which is other than ‘male/female’. How about in your service?
Providing a wide range of options under gender (as well as a narrative box where the person can write their own preferred terminology) and sexual orientation, communicates something important to clients. That we think, that we care – and that we include. It also suggests that we are willing to question unhelpful categories and constructs that can limit and restrict in sometimes unconscious, yet powerful, ways. It communicates that we are inclusive and generous in our approach to working alongside our clients at whatever stage of identity formation we encounter them.
Dr David Mair, MBACP (Snr Accred), is Head of Counselling and Wellbeing at the University of Birmingham. He has worked in HE for over 20 years, first with international students, and then in a variety of counselling roles. His particular interests include the needs of LGBTQ students in HE – an area he explored in his doctoral research; issues affecting international students’ mental health; and mindful approaches to wellbeing.
1. Freud S. Lecture 33, Femininity. In: Sigmund Freud, the essentials of psychoanalysis. London: Penguin; 1991.
6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/10930654/Facebooks-71-gender-options-come-to-UK-users.html (accessed 10 June 2015).