The Transgender Religion Survey

In this post, J. Sumerau discusses the motivations, contents, and goals of a survey effort seeking to document and amplify the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from social scientific surveys about religion and nonreligion in American society.

In the past few years, contemporary religious and nonreligious commentators have begun to issue formal and informal statements concerning sex and gender diversity. As transgender women and men, intersex people, non-binary people, agender people, genderqueer people, and other groups of people who do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “woman/man” sex and gender binaries gain more recognition in American society and continue to fight for equal rights and representation in this country, some of the largest religious traditions in the country – including but not limited to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Catholic Church – have started issuing official statements about these groups of people. While some of these statements have been positive (such as the recent changes occurring within Reform Judaism to incorporate greater recognition of sex and gender diversity), many of them have been negative (such as the Southern Baptist Convention denouncing transgender, intersex, and non-binary existence).

At the same time, debates have emerged (especially online) within nonreligious communities about these populations and their place in American society. Like their religious counterparts, some of these examples have included positive depictions of such communities and calls for greater recognition, inclusion, and support of sex and gender diversity in America. However, some other nonreligious leaders and lay people have taken the opposite side while adopting and repeating negative stereotypes and condemnations of these communities. If the historical experiences of various marginalized people and communities offer any clues to these patterns, one may assume that religious and nonreligious statements about sex and gender diversity will only increase, that such statements may have far ranging effects on policy, politics, and the everyday experiences of many people, and that politicians (as presidential candidate Marco Rubio did earlier this week) may seize on these statements to justify opposition to equal rights for all people regardless of sex and gender status, identification, and experience.

As we watched these patterns unfold over the last couple of years while doing research and teaching concerning sex and gender groups and statuses often missing from traditional research agendas, measurement strategies, and protocols, some supportive colleagues and I became interested in what sex and gender groups typically missing from existing surveys might say about these patterns, the statements religious and nonreligious people made about sex and gender diversity, and their own religious and nonreligious experiences. To begin exploring this question, I began explicitly asking transgender, intersex, and non-binary people I encountered at various events for their opinions on these topics, for advice about incorporating these opinions and experiences into scholarship, and for advice concerning the best way to create a questionnaire or survey capable of capturing such opinions for scholarly dissemination and publication. While I initially only went to events and meetings I already attended occasionally or was already acquainted with, I gradually began to find and attend other meetings and events in hopes of gathering the most diverse array of advice, opinions, and suggestions I could. Specifically, I sought out people in each of these groups who experienced life in varied racial, class, regional, community, and political contexts in hopes of developing a study that could be as inclusive as possible of the immense variation contained within any common sex and gender status, group, or community categories.

Overall, the lesson I learned from all these informal inquiries was that if anything characterized the groups experiences of and opinions about religion and nonreligion it was diversity. People in each group agreed about many things, disagreed about many other things, and accomplished both of these options from question to question at times. As a result, I decided to fashion a survey that would allow people to self-identify and self-define their selves, experiences, and attitudes concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of American society. With this goal in mind, I turned to a supportive colleague with extensive experience designing surveys, and we further recruited another colleague who did their master’s work on sex and gender diversity and worked with us on other pieces on these issues related to religion. The three of us developed survey questions that allowed for a lot of variation in terms of responses, and then I took these questions back to people I had consulted previously to evaluate our efforts.

Over time, this process of construction and revision led to a survey instrument wherein respondents who choose to participate may define themselves (via multiple options or written in their own words; for example the gender identification question has 17 multiple choice options and an open-ended other response respondents may write in) in varied ways on every single variable, discuss their experiences and attitudes in their own words via open-ended options tied to questions about religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions and categories (for example, rather than assuming an experience with sex status, there is an open-ended question where respondents can share and define such experience in their own words), and wherein respondents may answer questions commonly offered on other religion and nonreligion surveys that generally do not have sex and gender measurements or only allow male/female or man/woman options for sex and / or gender.

Recently, we launched this survey online, and we are currently in the process of recruiting and gathering respondents through social media, conversations with national organizations, and through word of mouth in various communities. With recruitment under way, I wanted to use this space to discuss the details of the survey for anyone who may be considering participation. Simply put, the survey is a combination of multiple choice and open ended questions focused on religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions in contemporary America. Anyone who participates will have the opportunity to self define (either through the selection of one of many options provided in the survey or by writing in their own self identification in their own words) their own gender, sex, sexuality, race, education, income, religious or nonreligious affiliation, year of birth, state or region of residence, employment status, healthcare access, and political views. Respondents will also encounter a series of questions ascertaining religious, nonreligious, and other social experiences, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs (most of these also include open ended options for response and / or elaboration). Rather than assuming anything about the populations eligible for this study, we have specifically designed the survey itself to allow people to identify in their own ways, and discuss their own opinions, experiences, attitudes and beliefs.

Since our goal here is to document and amplify the experiences and opinions of sex and gender populations typically left out of surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions, anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries is eligible for participation in this study. As such, the focus of this survey rests upon comparing and contrasting the variation, diversity and complexity of sex and gender groups typically missing from previous surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other aspects of social life.

As part of contemporary institutional research processes, we developed a shorthand  label for describing and explaining the project to audiences and reviewers beyond the target population. After consulting with various members of different sex and / or gender groups, we decided to name the project the Transgender Religion Survey for official purposes because this option received the most support from members of these various social groups.

Especially considering that many sex and gender groups do not necessarily use or identify with the term “transgender” and many spiritual, nonreligious, and even some religious people do not necessarily use or identify with the term “religion,” we recognize that this name is not perfect and understand the perspectives of people who might prefer other names or not use or identify with these terms in daily life. However, for the purposes of this study and following the lead of some other large scale efforts to incorporate sex and gender groups often marginalized and erased in contemporary American society, we use transgender in the official survey documentation as a broad umbrella term for anyone who does not fit neatly into societal assumptions about binary sex and / or gender status, identification, expression, and / or display. Likewise, for the purposes of this study religion is defined as of or having to do with assumptions, beliefs, and practices regarding the supernatural.

While many people who fit within the broad definitions noted above identify in a wide variety of ways, shift and change language and identification terms and definitions over time in varied ways, and have very distinct experiences, beliefs and characteristics, we selected these terms as broad descriptors for the overall effort. Within the survey itself, respondents will define themselves in terms of sex, gender, and religion, and our analyses and use of this data will be built upon the ways people self identify and describe themselves, the variations and distinct experiences shared by the varied populations, and the representations respondents select for their distinct lives, groups, and experiences with religion, nonreligion, and other social phenomena. Rather than attempting to pick a definition for this or that group, we thus allow people to define themselves, and we will utilize their self definitions to compare and contrast variation among sex and gender groups concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of contemporary American society.

As a result, this project does not seek to define the characteristics of specific groups (i.e., what is transgender, what is Christian, what is atheist, what is intersex, etc.). There are many talented and capable activists and scholars engaged in such work at present, but in this case we will utilize the definitions and terms selected and discussed by the respondents themselves. Our goal is thus to compliment the work of sex and gender activists and scholars by incorporating the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from other surveys into other areas of contemporary scholarship.

In closing, I encourage all eligible people (i.e., anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries) to consider participating in this study. While I hope for the day when all sex and gender groups are regularly recognized, included, and represented in scholarly efforts, I am reminded of how far we have to go to reach this goal every year when I encounter students that learn of many sex and gender groups for the first time in my classes. With this survey effort, we seek to continue and compliment ongoing efforts to increase the awareness and recognition of sex and gender diversity in contemporary society by documenting some ways varied sex and gender groups experience and think about religion and nonreligion.

For more information, official survey documentation noted above, and / or to participate in the study, please visit: http://researchsurveyor.com/surveys/index.php?r=survey%2Findex&sid=568681&lang=en

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