Researchers want to know as much as possible about their target audience when fielding studies. Often this involves asking questions on sensitive topics, in particular, questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. Asking about gender identity and sexual orientation on surveys can arm researchers with powerful insights. But how do respondents feel about answering questions about these sensitive topics?

Census researchers have conducted experiments to see if respondents are more likely to skip questions about sexual orientation or gender identity than typical demographic questions. Their research found that significantly more respondents skipped questions on income than sexual identity.

Researchers asked respondents specifically how they feel about being asked about their sexual identity in surveys. The vast majority of respondents are comfortable answering questions about gender and sexual orientation. Roughly 90 percent say they are “comfortable” answering these types of questions and an additional 8 percent say they are neutral – neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.

Given the high comfort level with these sensitive questions, many landmark surveys like the 2020 Decennial Census have been criticized for not including questions about sexual identity. This is a missed opportunity to capture valuable insight on respondents.

So, how can researchers ask about gender and sexual identity in the right away to ensure comfort and avoid offending respondents? Whether asking about gender or sexual orientation, designing the question to be as inclusive as possible will ensure the best results.

When asking about gender, including an “other” option along with “male” and “female” feels most inclusive for respondents. Including an open-ended box along with the “other” option allows respondents to further specify how they identify.  

Many surveys ask a yes/no question about whether a person identifies as LGBT. While this is a step in the right direction, it provides a crude estimate and misses the opportunity to ask for more nuanced responses. Researchers can deepen the level of insight they gather by asking specifically if respondents are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual in one question along with an additional question to ask if respondents identify as transsexual.

Fielding data on gender identity and sexual orientation helps researchers conduct a deeper analysis on their target audience. However, as with all survey questions, it is important to only ask when there are plans to use the data.