When asking about gender or pronouns, consider your intentions. Do you need to know a patient’s gender/sex-related medical history for your treatment? Or do you just need to know their preferred name and pronouns to develop practitioner-patient rapport? Knowing what your goals are will help you decide what and how to ask. Remember, curiosity is never an appropriate reason to ask personal questions of your patient.
Ideas for asking about gender or preferred pronouns include the following: “Which pronouns would you like me to use for you?” or “How would you like me to refer to you?” (This one is great if you’re not sure if you need to ask about pronouns. Patients can respond simply with “I go by Katie, not Katherine,” or, “Please call me Mrs. Smith.” Other patients may take this opportunity to share preferred pronouns or other information with you). Another good option is, “I like to ask all my patients which pronouns they prefer. Would you mind telling me yours?” Patients may feel more comfortable responding if they know you’re not singling them out.
How do we know when we should ask patients questions about their identities? If you are just curious, don’t ask. There are many website available for you to educate yourself. Use patient time only to gather information relevant to their health concerns and goals. It is appropriate to ask how a patient would like you to refer to them, and what hormones they are taking because you need to know how to refer to them and medications may affect what herbs you prescribe. Though more sensitive, it can also be relevant to ask what your patient’s plans are for transitioning (or not transitioning) so that you can best support their goals.
What’s the basic difference between gender and sex? Take a look at the “genderbread person” to learn the basic difference between sex and gender. As a generalization, gender is is your head; it’s how you identify. Sex is what the doctor decides you are when you’re born, based on your genitals at birth.
The hardest part: Both gender and sex are social constructs! Your sex is decided based on your genitals at birth, which do not necessarily match with your chromosomes, what internal reproductive organs you have, what sex hormones or secondary sexual characteristics you will have, or even what your genitals will look like later in life. Most people like to think of sex as black and white (male, female, and nothing else), but this simply doesn’t match up with reality.