“The Idea of Categorizing Makes Me Feel Uncomfortable”: University Student Perspectives on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Labeling in the Healthcare Setting

  • Kathryn L. Scheffey
  • Shannon N. Ogden
  • Melissa E. DichterEmail author
Original Paper


As healthcare settings are increasingly adding sexual orientation and gender identity (SO/GI) to routinely collected patient demographic information, it is important to understand how patients conceptualize and label these identities. This study explored university students’ perspectives on and experiences with choosing SO/GI labels in the healthcare setting. We employed a mixed-method approach, collecting survey data on self-identified SO/GI labels across various contexts and conducting focus groups centered around experiences of SO/GI data collection and labeling in healthcare. Thirty-four graduate and undergraduate university students completed the survey and participated in six one-time focus groups. While many participants indicated that their self-identified SO/GI labels were consistent across contexts/relationships, 47% indicated that they used different labels to describe their SO or GI depending on the context. The focus group discussions revealed ways in which participants struggled to label their SO/GI on forms: They reported that (1) their authentic SO/GI labels were not among the commonly listed labels or (2) they felt that labeling their SO/GI identities was problematic. Participants reported that choosing a label that did not fit their lived experience was not only inaccurate, but could also feel painful and alienating. These findings hold implications for the collection and interpretation of patient SO/GI information, both for epidemiological purposes and for patient-centered care.


Sexual orientation Gender identity Fluidity Labeling Categorization 



The authors did not receive any external funding to support this research. The authors acknowledge the contributions of Nicky Knepp and Lauren Nadler to data collection and analysis.


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. government work and its text is not subject to copyright protection in the United States; however, its text may be subject to foreign copyright protection  2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathryn L. Scheffey
    • 1
  • Shannon N. Ogden
    • 1
  • Melissa E. Dichter
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Family Medicine and Community HealthUniversity of Pennsylvania Perelman School of MedicinePhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsCenter for Health Equity Research and PromotionPhiladelphiaUSA

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