In order to obtain relevant and reliable demographic information regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, it is important to understand the complexities of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. In many English-speaking communities, the concepts of sex, gender and sexual orientation are frequently conflated in ways that can marginalize those who do not fit the dominant heterosexual, men are men/women are women narrative. Thus, when asking about an individual’s sex, gender, or sexual orientation on a survey, it is important that survey developers have a clear understanding of these terms and what it really means to ask for specific demographic information to ensure that the information collected is valid.

In Western culture, sex assignment is usually determined by a physician around the time of birth based on the appearance of external genitalia. There is an assumption that the development of external genitalia aligns with an expected chromosomal make up and release of hormones. Sex categories are commonly identified exclusively as either female or male, but a growing number of communities, cultures, and countries are advocating for expanded recognition of additional sex categories, including intersex.


Gender identity, while frequently used interchangeably with and conflated with sex assigned at birth, describes the way a person sees themselves in terms of gender categories, such as man, woman, agender, third-gender, and other gender identifier language. Gender expression describes the ways a person expresses their gender to other people through roles, mannerisms, clothing, interactions, hair styles, and other perceivable ways. If seeking to better understand how the respondent interacts with the outside world, a survey may ask for gender identity and gender expression.

The normative alignment of sex assigned at birth and gender identity, such as a person assigned female at birth who identifies as a woman, is described by the term cisgender. Transgender is a term that is broadly defined as an identity in which a person’s sex assigned at birth and gender identity does not align. It’s important to recognize that those who identify as transgender may or may not identify with binary male/female or man/woman categories. Surveys seeking reliable data regarding transgender populations should ask descriptive and precise questions regarding transgender identity, sex assigned at birth and gender identity with options of providing their own identity term.


Finally, sexual orientation describes a person’s emotional and/or physical attraction to other people. Common sexual orientation terms may include straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and many others. Sexual orientation and sexual behavior may be different, however. If we are seeking to address health disparities that result from same-sex sexual behavior, it would be more relevant to ask about sexual behavior than sexual orientation. This is because identity and behavior are not the same.

SexualOrientationQuestion SexualBehaviorQuestion

It’s important that research tools reflect an understanding of the complexity and meaning of each of these categories in order to collect relevant demographic information that serves to answer an intended question. An important rule of thumb is to only ask what you really need to know about.

About the Authors

Jen Hsu

Jen Hsu box with arrow

Coordinator of LGBT Student Services, Western Michigan University

Jen has over 10 years of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) diversity experience, including 6 years of professional experience providing LGBT support, education and advocacy to the Southwest Michigan community. As a community organizer Hsu has experience in systemic transformational change in institutions and communities. Her areas of focus include cultural competency training, organizational development and institutional policy analysis that focuses on building inclusive institutions through education and ally development to eliminate barriers and create welcoming spaces for marginalized and underrepresented communities.

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