Why taking part in the census is so important for the LGBTQ+ community

Paisley Gilmour
·5-min read

From Cosmopolitan

If you live in England or Wales, you've likely received a Census 2021 letter in the past few weeks ahead of census day (March 21). The census is a once-in-a-decade data gathering survey, and this year is the first time it'll be possible to fill it in online. It's also the first time the census will collect data about the population's sexual orientation and gender identity. This means it's more important than ever for LGBTQ+ people to take part in the census. Some queer people are so excited about this that they're sharing photos of them filling in the census with the Twitter hashtag #ProudToBeCounted. While everyone must complete the census by law (or face a fine of up to £1,000), questions around sexuality and gender identity are voluntary. Scotland's Census will be conducted in 2022.

What questions are LGBTQ+ people being asked?

The two voluntary questions are:

"Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation?

Answer options include: ''straight or heterosexual'', ''gay or lesbian'', ''bisexual'' and ''other sexual orientation'' which has a comment box for if you'd like to enter another sexual orientation.

"Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?"

Answer options include ''yes'', ''no'' and a comment box in which you can enter your gender identity.

Photo credit: Zave Smith
Photo credit: Zave Smith

There is also a compulsory question asking, "What is your sex?" There are two answer options, which are ''male'' and "female". The question also comes with a disclaimer: "a question about gender identity will follow later on in the questionnaire." This question and the binary-only answer choices has caused alarm to, and an issue for, many trans and non-binary people. The Office For National Statistics (ONS), who administer the survey for the government, released a statement explaining why they have made this decision on the wording. It read, "We are continuing to ask a binary choice male or female sex question on the census. This approach is unchanged since 1801. There is a new voluntary question on gender identity for people aged 16 years and over later in the questionnaire."

Guidance provided alongside the census, which explains how to answer the questions relating to sex, has since been the subject of a high court case. Controversial pressure group Fair Play For Women (FPFR) raised £100,000 and campaigned to get the wording changed. Originally, the guidance included trans-inclusive wording, "If you are considering how to answer, use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, gender recognition certificate, or passport." But FPFR fought to have "passport" removed on the grounds that it is not a legal document. For trans people, obtaining a birth certificate of gender recognition certificate with their correct sex on is a lengthy, costly, bureaucratic and dehumanising experience. Not only does it require a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, but it fails to recognise non-binary identities all together.

Why should LGBTQ+ people fill in voluntary census questions about gender identity and sexual orientation?

It's understandable that some people would feel worried or unsure about answering personal questions relating to their sexual orientation and trans status. But choosing to provide this data can improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people in England and Wales.

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As explained in this brilliant PinkNews Instagram post, none of your confidential information or data will be shared. And if you're not out as LGBTQ+ in your household, you can request to fill in the census separately from those you live with (more on that below).

To understand the size and make-up of the LGBTQ+ population

"The 2021 Census will be a historic moment for LGBT+ communities. For the first time, the Census includes two new voluntary questions on sexual orientation and trans status, as well as clear and inclusive guidance on how to answer the Census sex question. This will give us an accurate picture of the size and make-up of the LGBT+ population in Britain," said Nancy Kelley, chief executive of LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall, back in February.

Photo credit: Johner Images
Photo credit: Johner Images

To understand the needs of LGBTQ+ people and develop services

Nancy added, "For far too long, our community has been a hidden population. Collecting this vital data will ensure researchers, policymakers, service providers and community organisations are able to understand the needs of LGBT+ people and develop tailored services to help us be treated fairly and achieve our potential."

What if you're not out?

Many LGBTQ+ people are not out to their families or in their households. But if you're not out, you can still answer these questions confidentially and without your household members being able to see your answers.

"We know that many people in our community have reservations about completing the census because submissions are often completed by one member of a household. This poses a real barrier for those who do not feel they can be open about their identity to their families or those they live with," Nancy explains.

"That’s why it’s important people know they can request a separate online or paper form, which is confidential and will over-ride the information submitted by the household. This means a person’s parents, housemates or landlord won’t ever see their answers, so they can be confident that details about their sexual orientation or trans status will be kept safe."

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