Visitor Self-Identification and Institutional Allyship

Earlier this summer, I conducted a short visitor survey that included basic demographic information. As I interviewed a couple whom I perceived to be a man and a woman, I asked them their zip codes, age ranges, and gender. At that last question, the individual I had initially read as male responded,

Can I say female? I don’t look like it, but I identify as a woman. Is that alright for the survey?

I told her that it was fine and we finished the survey.

As I continued my survey work that day, I kept thinking about that woman. What if I hadn’t asked her to self-identify her gender, but rather had simply checked the “male” box on her survey? Would it have much of a difference to my results? No. Did it make a difference to her to be able to define herself? I don’t know.

That survey had two gender choices – male and female. And, truthfully, maybe that question didn’t even need to be there. It was a motivation study, and we cared more about individual choices that day than sex or gender.

As the summer’s continued and we have Olympians required to undergo genetic testing and punk rock musicians coming out as transgender, I started thinking not just about that one woman, but cultural institutions in general.

Are you an ally? Are you a safe and welcoming space for visitors who are not heteronormative? Do those visitors know that they are welcome and wanted?

Do you include LGBTQQIA (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer-questioning-intersex-ally) information and stories in your exhibits and programs when they belong in that narrative?

Do your memberships include options for same-sex couples and families?

Do you make assumptions about your visitors’ sexual and identity orientations?

Do you use gender-neutral language when specificity isn’t required?

When you’re conducting evaluation, do your surveys ask for a visitor’s “gender” or “sex”? The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation defines “sex” as biological, and “gender” as “one’s internal, personal sense of being a man or woman (or a boy or a girl).”

Are the questionnaire answer options a visitor has to choose from limited to “male” and “female,” or do they include LGBTQQIA choices?

Community support and visitor involvement, engagement, and contribution are immensely important goals for most museums. Giving our visitors opportunities to tell us who they are, and to welcome and accept what they share, is a necessary part of reaching those goals.

What steps has your institution taken to be an ally?

The Yogyakarta Principles – The application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity.

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