Focus Groups with Transgender & Nonbinary Adults: Lessons Learned from Pew Research Center
By: Anna Brown, Research Associate, Pew Research Center
Late last year, the Social and Demographic Trends team at Pew Research Center embarked on an ambitious study about gender identity and the experiences of transgender and nonbinary Americans. We conducted a series of online focus groups of trans and nonbinary adults in March 2022, followed by a survey of the general public in May.
The focus groups led to an essay detailing the experiences, challenges and hopes of trans and nonbinary adults in which most of the text was from the participants’ own words. They also led to an AAPOR presentation in Chicago this year in which we described the lessons we learned from conducting the focus groups. The quantitative data we gathered led to an estimate of the share of U.S. adults who are trans or nonbinary as well as a sweeping look at the landscape of public opinion about gender identity and transgender issues.
Among the lessons we learned from the focus groups:
- Enlist the help of people who share similar identities with the group you’re studying. For an all-cisgender research team like ours, this was critical. We spoke with several scholars in different areas of gender discourse, all of whom were trans or nonbinary themselves, as we developed the discussion guide and recruiting questionnaire. We continued to rely on their help reviewing those materials as well as the final report. In addition, our moderators were all trans or nonbinary. We had a trans woman moderate a group of all trans women, a trans man moderate a group of all trans men and a nonbinary person moderate a group of all nonbinary people. Other groups included a mix of trans and nonbinary adults and were moderated either by a nonbinary or a trans man moderator.
- Design your materials to suit the needs of your target population. For trans and nonbinary adults, earning their trust early on was critical. Consulting with people who are trans and nonbinary themselves helped us avoid language in our recruiting questionnaire and discussion guide that could have been insensitive or seen as out-of-touch. Because we were recruiting from a pool where most respondents would be eligible to participate (outreach to people who had previously said they were trans or nonbinary in panel surveys, as well as connections through professional networks and LGBTQ+ organizations), we could use terminology such as “nonbinary” in our screening questionnaire that might not be broadly understood among the general public but worked well for our target population.
- Keep groups small, overrecruit and have a plan in place to keep the groups running smoothly. We recruited six participants per group with the intention to seat four or five in each group. For an online focus group, smaller is usually better – cross-talk is minimized and it allows for a more in-depth discussion. 83% of our recruits showed up with working technology and no group had all six participants, so overrecruiting was essential. We also had someone dedicated to tech support available for the duration of each focus group so that the moderator could focus on moderating.
- Stay flexible. Even when you plan ahead for contingencies, you may still need to make decisions on the fly. Each of our focus groups was scheduled for 90 minutes but some moved more quickly than others. Without intervention, some groups would not have been able to get through the entire discussion guide. If a group veered into a tangent that wasn’t relevant to our goals or if a question fell flat with a particular group, we could send a message to the moderator asking them to try to move to the next topic. We could also have them skip less-essential topics if it was moving slowly, avoid sensitive topics if the group rapport didn’t seem strong enough, or keep probing on a particularly interesting discussion.
- Understand that focus groups are not representative of a population as a whole, so inferences are limited. We set some minimum quotas for groups that we wanted to be sure to hear from, such as older adults and nonwhite participants and we ended up with good racial/ethnic and age diversity. Still, some groups were easier to recruit than others. Majorities of our participants were living in urban areas, were single and had at least bachelor’s degree. We also recruited more nonbinary participants than trans men or trans women.
We hope other researchers will learn from our study and apply these lessons to their qualitative work, whether it involves trans and nonbinary participants or other groups. If you’d like to learn more about this research, the focus group findings are publicly available, including details on the methodology we used. Thanks to our research partner PSB Insights, our moderators and experts that we consulted, and all of our participants for making this project a success.