Thank you for the work you do and for inviting my children to participate. We have been participating in these studies since my children were babies. This time, as I mentioned to the research assistant on site when they participated, it was a little different of an experience and I wanted to bring it to your attention.
From the moment I read the consent I was a bit surprised that the questionnaire only indicated male/ female as options for gender. Considering the visibility of transgender /gender fluidity in mainstream culture I would have expected a state of the art psychology research facility to be more proactive about inclusivity. In my case this is particularly relevant because I would consider my son transgendered and, if given the choice, would have selected that as an option. I was also not allowed an “other” option or a “prefer not to answer” option which are pretty standard now. This binary forced choice question was also surprising considering that I was later to learn the study was related to gender and perception.
Most shocking to me, though, was the emphasis of a study on gender on a forced choice binary response in which the children were told repeatedly some version of the phrases “correct” “mistake” “wrong” “right” related to how the photos of people were categorized into one gender or the other. This is decidedly problematic because my son would not easily be divided this way and forcing this type of answer requires a child to accept 1) that there is only one option applicable and 2) that the other option is wrong. This not only reinforces gender binaries that are harmful but actually, in as much as you are dealing with young children, constructs/ teaches/ enforces/ imprints such binaries on these children who might not otherwise think of them that way. I strongly considered whether to take my daughter out of the study. I decided not to because I knew I could explain it to her later (which frankly many parents would not be able to do or even think to do) and I wanted to see where the study was going in case my son was participating in the same one. I quickly learned, to my relief, that he had not participated in it.
If my son had participated in this particular study, I would have immediately taken him out if I was the one with him. Imagine a young, impressionable transgender child participating in this study. Over 40% of transgender people attempt suicide. Your study promotes the very mindset that leads children and adults to do so. This is shocking from a child study psychology program and, frankly, when I spoke to the research assistant about it, I compared it to torture. Consider my son. He would have been required to sit there, without understanding his right as a minor to leave at any time. He would have been without a legal guardian present for supervision who would be able to enact this right for him. He would have been told that you can look at a person’s face and decide based on that information alone whether the child is male or female. He would have been told that there must only be one right answer and that any other answer is incorrect/ a mistake/ wrong. What does that do to a transgender child’s mind? To make this worse, the guardians of the child would never know that this is what the study entailed/required because they were not allowed to be in the room during the study.
As it turns out, I am a Ph.D. in communication and a well-published researcher who studies stereotypes. That my son is transgender is a lucky coincidence that helps him get to be himself without me enforcing binaries. My background is also why, for the first time in participating in studies with your department after all these years, I insisted on being in the room while the study was conducted. After I saw that only male and female were options were indicated on the consent materials, after I learned that the study was about perceptions related to gender, I knew I should be vigilant in my responsibility as his parent. The combination of a mother who studies stereotypes and a son who is transgender participating in a research study is, I can only imagine, rare. How many of your participants would be knowledgeable enough of the content area, understand research design, be open minded about gender, and have a comfort level and personality that would allow them to feel comfortable complaining?
I urge you to take my concerns into consideration and stop the current study to rework the design. I look forward to hear what actions will be taken to resolve these concerns so that no other families need to risk their children being taught, albeit inadvertently, about the gender binary as a “right” way to understand gender. I know that your department can and will be forward thinking about how it responds to my concerns. Research studies may ethically study morality, but it is inappropriate for them to teach it.