In the census

The government has made announcements about inclusion of sexuality and gender diversity questions in the 2021 census.

They have published a White Paper in response to the recommendations Office for National Statistics (ONS) has made for the wording of the ten-yearly census. The ONS suggested these should be voluntary questions and the White Paper observes:

As with the question on religious affiliation introduced in the 2001 Census, we believe
these new questions (on sexual orientation and gender identity) should be voluntary and no individual should be forced to answer these questions who does not want to. The Government and UK Statistics Authority will now consider the appropriate mechanism to ensure this is the case.

The ONS note that they recommended that the sexuality question should:

  • only be asked of persons aged 16 years and over
  • explicitly ask respondents’ sexual orientation (rather than relying on the response options to tell the respondent what the question is about)
  • list “straight” before the equivalent term “heterosexual” in the first response option
  • include a write-in box for the “other” response option
  • include a “prefer not to say” response option

They also suggest that there be a gender identity question:

In order to collect robust data on gender identity, that is publicly acceptable and meets user needs, we’ve recommended that the question should:

  • only be asked of persons aged 16 years and over
  • be separate to the question on sex
  • include a write-in box to allow individuals to record their gender identity where this is not male or female
  • include a “prefer not to say” response option

The move has been controversial with some people worrying that the figures will under-represent the number of bisexual, trans and gay people in the country if the “head of household” filling in a census does not know or does not approve of the identities of the people they live with – for example when the census is completed by a parent whose expressed homophobia has prevented their teenage bi child from coming out.

However it will add to the rich variety of measures of how many LGBT people there are in the country and it seems peculiar that we ask other quite personal questions in the census but leave sexuality and gender identity out of the mix.  Asking will over time help normalise asking those things.

The census will also for the first time be largely conducted online.