Sexuality and Gender Identity in the Census

The Census in England and Wales is sent out every ten years to every household. It asks questions about issues such as demographic characteristics, the house you live in, your health and the work you do. This is important for service planning, and for identifying and addressing important social issues. As you might imagine, it’s a big piece of work and it takes a lot of planning, and so work is well underway towards the next Census in 2021.

Up until now, there have been no direct questions about sexual orientation or gender identity in the Census. In the 2011 data, the only LGBT people who are clearly identifiable are those in civil partnerships. That causes problems both for service planning and research. I’ll own up now to a bit of interest in this issue – I used to volunteer on a LGBT switchboard in a posh suburban/rural south-eastern county. It was run by a charity, on a shoestring budget, and we regularly used to go to the multiple Councils and health bodies and police teams that covered our area, and ask them for small grants to help with our running expenses. We’d also ask them to talk to us about how services could be made more inclusive. And on more than one occasion, we were greeted with genuine surprise. Were there really LGBT people needing support in this part of the world? Surely not. And then when the surprise had faded, we were asked for proof. How many LGBT people? Where? What ages? Did they have other intersectional needs? And the simple fact was, there wasn’t any reliable data we could use to make a case. Census data would have made a real difference in being able to highlight areas of need, and I believe it could have led to better services on the ground for LGBT people.

Following consultation about the 2021 census, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has now cautiously agreed to look further into including sexual identity and gender identity questions . Here’s a summary of the key points from their report.

Sexual Identity

  • The ONS concluded that overall there was a “medium user need” for this data – however, in fact the need for this data scored 8/10 on all measures except continuity with previous surveys (since it has not been on previous surveys, it scored zero for this component)
  • The question they would be likely to use would be a variation on the one currently used by the ONS when interviewing people: “Which of the options on this card best describes how you think of yourself: Heterosexual/Straight, Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual, Other.” One of the potential difficulties is that, unlike with face-to-face interviews, the census is often completed by one household member on behalf of the others, or other household members can see the answer. The ONS has not tested this question in this situation, but there are some obvious problems with asking this question where answers are not confidential, including  the fact that it might put some people in an awkward or unsafe situation.
  • Asking this question would potentially mean a change in primary legislation. In the past, there were concerns by some politicians that asking a question on religion was too intrusive, and as a compromise it was made an optional question. Similar issues might apply here.
  • When this question has been asked in other research, there is a high proportion of don’t know/prefer not to say responses, which is often larger than the proportion of people saying they are definitely lesbian, gay or bisexual. This might affect how useful the data collected is.
  • The ONS has previously found that around one in ten people have said they do not want to provide information on their sexual orientation. There are therefore some concerns that including this question may lead to more non-responses to the Census overall.
  • The ONS suggests that the questions would only be asked for over 16s, as those below this age might not be able to answer this question. Certainly it seems inappropriate to state a sexual identity for very young children, but I’m personally not sure 16 is the right cut off. Their justification for this is that 16 is the age of consent. I think this  problematically ties sexual identity to having sex. It would also make the data less useful for youth services. If the question is likely to be optional anyway, why not allow those under 16s who wish to express a sexual identity?
  • In 2017, a large scale test of the census will be carried out. The ONS will include sexual identity questions in that, and evaluate the impact. Alongside that, the ONS will also conduct focus groups, talk to stakeholders and review existing work regarding collecting data on sexual orientation.

Gender Identity

  • This wasn’t actually included in the ONS consultation – however, they seem to have received a number of “write-in” responses saying this was important, so have decided to look into it further.
  • Overall, the ONS has concluded that there is a medium user need for this data, and that this is particularly the case because there are few other reliable sources of data on the trans and non-binary population. A number of respondents stressed that this is making it difficult to plan services and tackle inequality
  • The ONS states that “sex, as biologically determined, is one of the most frequently used and important characteristics the census collects as it is used in most multivariate analysis of data and feeds into the UK population projections”. I think this is something of a misunderstanding on the ONS’s part about the nature of the data they already collect – I filled in the census in 2011, and I did not respond to the male/female question with my “sex as biologically determined” – it genuinely didn’t occur to me that I should (and even if it had, I still wouldn’t have). Nor is it factually correct to assume that “sex as biologically determined” is a binary issue. I suspect the ONS is already collecting gender rather than sex data on this question. However, their overall point seems to be that it is  important that they be able to analyse differences between men and women, which I don’t think anyone was disagreeing with.
  • The ONS note that it is difficult to come up with a question on this which is acceptable to trans people and comprehensible by cis people. It would only take a relatively small proportion of cis people to misunderstand the question for the number of errors to outweigh the responses from trans people. (Personally, I also think there’s also likely to be an issue of “joke” responses – someone thinks it’s funny to put his housemate down as trans etc.)
  • Previous research has suggested that more than half of trans people would be unwilling to disclose trans status, however sensitively the question was asked. Additionally, census responses may be visible to other members of the household, which is likely to further increase concerns about confidentiality and lower response rates, as well as being very unsafe for some.
  • If gender identity was asked about, it would be likely to be similar to the EHRC recommended questions. This is in fact four questions: sex assigned at birth; how you think of your gender now; do you have the protected characteristic gender reassignment; and stage of gender reassignment (i.e. have you already transitioned, are you currently transitioning, do you intent to transition in the future). This adds a number of extra questions into the census,  which takes up a relatively large amount of space and may cause confusion among those for whom this isn’t relevant (e.g. some people may genuinely not understand why they are being asked about both their sex at birth and their gender now).  I am personally slightly uncomfortable with a set of questions which leads with “sex assigned at birth” – I understand why it is done, but I dislike my birth assigned sex being stated prior to my gender identity. Also, in view of the ONS’s apparent confusion above regarding the supposed importance of analysis by “sex as biologically determined”, I am somewhat concerned that they, or at least some analysts using the data, might treat my sex assigned at birth as the primary category for analysis rather than my gender identity.
  • Again, the ONS is concerned that including questions on gender identity may lead to more people not responding to the census.
  • Again, the ONS say it would need a change to primary legislation to include these questions.
  • Overall, the ONS agrees that there is a need for this data, but they don’t seem convinced that the Census is the way to do it. They therefore intend to review their previous work on collecting trans data, talk to stakeholders and talk to other countries’ statistics agencies to work out the best way forward.

Gender Identity doesn’t need science

So once again, a rash of articles and blog posts by “gender-critical feminists” asserting that we can’t offer protection for gender identity based on self-determination because there is no scientific consensus on what gender identity is. These articles then neatly segue into a discussion (usually biased) of the science, hoping no-one will notice the entirely false premise.

Scientific consensus is not required to protect a minority group. Virtually none of the “protected characteristics” in the UK Equality Act are the subject of scientific consensus. Sexuality? The scientists are still arguing whether it’s the gay gene, the size of your hippocampus, how many older brothers you have, or good old environmental factors. Race? The definition in the act talks about colour, nationality and ethnic origins, none of which is exactly amenable to ready scientific categorisation, and pretty much all scientists now consider the idea of absolute distinctions between races to be Victorian pseudo-science. Disability? The definition is an impairment with a substantial impact on someone’s day to day life – again a definition which is contingent on social factors, and hence established for equal monitoring purposes by self-definition. As for the scientific consensus on religion – well, the less said about that, the better.

We live in a pluralist society. We understand that it would be both ridiculous and hugely problematic for the government to impose central, monolithic categorisations for race, or disability, or religion, and apply them to everyone at birth, and place them on every government document. We would consider it to be a sign of an intolerant authoritarian government if you had to get formal permission to change those categorisations. And yet we can still manage to operate equality protections, despite the fact that definitions are fuzzy, despite the fact that some people may change how they describe themselves. We do this through the legislation being broadly phrased: the religion category does not come up with a list of religions and say these are the protected religions and this is how we define who belongs to which: it protects any religion or philosophical belief. Same for ethnicity and disability. That doesn’t invalidate or diminish concepts such as “Christian” or “Asian” or “blind”, nor mean that those groups aren’t protected under equality legislation, but it allows for flexibility and fluidity around these categorisations, and allows for the potential emergence of new groups who might also require protection.

As a society, we have a blind spot when it comes to the protected characteristic of “sex” (and by extension, to “sexuality” and “gender identity”, which are defined by reference to sex). Up until fairly recently, it was assumed that it was the government’s role to regulate this, and to do so in a clearly discriminatory way. It was assumed that it was necessary to be able to define who could marry who on the basis of genitals; that it was necessary to be able to treat women and men differently in tax and pay and pensions and insurance. Therefore the government needed to have a central definition, and it made sense to write M and F over every official document going. That’s out of date now. Thinking has changed, and from any feminist perspective that surely has to be a good thing. The government’s role now is to eliminate discrimination and promote equality. Therefore we should start to think about legislating for sex, gender and sexuality in the same way as we do for other equality characteristics, where multiple definitions and fuzzy categories are possible, but discrimination is still unacceptable.


Losing my Religion

I can pinpoint with precision the moment when I lost my faith. It was at an Evangelical event in Skegness when I was about 17. It had been organised by my local Church of England (Anglican) church. And I went to a discussion event on sexuality, and it really wasn’t a discussion at all. The leaders of the session were quite clear that there was no place for homosexual or queer identity. Unless I was prepared to enter into a heterosexual marriage, I was being “called” to celibacy. They based that on the fact that in Genesis, God creates Eve for Adam.

I am quite, quite sure that I am not being called to celibacy. In Genesis, before heterosexuality is created, the statement is made that it is not good for man to be alone. That is not to say that I believe that being single isn’t a valid choice, nor that all relationships must be permanent, marriage-modelled two-person arrangements. My point is that it is dishonest and cruel to suggest that gay, lesbian, bi and queer people who want to be in a relationship are being called to celibacy.

Now, all right, I wasn’t brought up in an Evangelical tradition. My dad was always pretty sceptical about Evangelicals, my mum liked some of what they had to say, but not other parts. So one option might have been for me to just decide Evangelism wasn’t for me, but stay Church of England. The trouble is, the liberal, “mainstream” of the Church of England wasn’t (and still isn’t) taking a coherent and pricipled stance. Oh, there are plenty of C of E churches which welcome gay congregants (but their relationships can’t be blessed by the clergy). There are some gay clergy (but officially they have to be celibate even though I’m pretty sure the real state of affairs is “don’t ask, don’t tell”). The anti-gay stance of many Evangelical churches may be hurtful and rejecting, but at least it does have integrity, and some kind of internal logic. The Church of England official stance is plain hypocrisy.

My mum is a Church of England vicar. Each year she holds a pet service in her parish church, and blesses dogs and cats and gerbils and guinea pigs and goldfish (even if they’ve been really bad goldfish!). She can say “Bless this food that we eat” over a meal. She has blessed houses for people newly moving into them. She even once blessed someone’s prized vintage car. I’ve been with my partner for six years. My mum is very supportive of the relationship. But she is categorically forbidden by the Church of England to bless our relationship within her official capacity. Nor can she bless the relationship of another longstanding parishioner of hers, someone whose faith hasn’t lapsed, and who genuinely and honestly believes in the Church of England’s ministry.

I’m glad the Archbishop of Canterbury accepts that this is hurtful. But I don’t accept his apology. One of the Christian principles I was raised in is that it’s not a real apology if you don’t make some effort to change. And doing something you think is wrong, for the sake of an easy life and not upsetting people, is immoral.

I suspect I probably won’t go back to religion, whatever happens. And it’s certainly not all about sexuality. There are plenty of other ways in which Christianity doesn’t give me satisfactory answers to my questions. But I cannot even respect the Church of England as a moral and ethical institution while its leaders continue to take a stance which I think even they believe to be wrong.

50 shades of “gay”

John Heritage, writing on conversation analysis, quotes a statistic from that the human eye can, apparently, see about 7 million distinct colours. English has about 4,000 words for shades and we commonly use words for about 8.

I can think of eleven pretty bog-standard colour words: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, pink, brown, black, white, grey, but perhaps the last three were excluded as not being technically colours? 4,000 other words for shades seems a lot, but I guess there you have the reasonably common ones like silver, gold, cream, navy and the less common ones like azure and taupe and puce. Beyond that, you can have the sort of paint catalogue names for slightly different shades: Harvest Gold and Autumn Sunset and so on. Once the words run out then you get into the approach computers and printers have, where you start numerically specifying the components of cyan, magenta and yellow. But Heritage’s point is, we can see the difference between one shade and another, long after the stage where we have specific names for the difference.

The practical reason for that is pretty obvious. If we all learnt twenty thousand names of colours, we’d never finish nursery school. In most contexts “blue” or “red” will do fine, and if we want to be more specific we can add modifiers or comparators: “a pale turquoisey-green”, or “fire engine red”. Also, if we gave each colour its own  individual name, we’d lose the fact that actually, one shade of navy blue is a lot more like another shade of navy blue than it is like hot pink. There is therefore a compromise to be made between being very specific and being very general. And Heritage makes the further point that this is not unique to colours: all language has to make this trade off in some way. We do the same thing for emotions, for example. There is more than one way to be happy, and we know the differences in the experience, but we don’t have a word for each of the separate emotional states.

This is an issue which arises time and again when we try to describe components of our identity, especially things like sexual and gender identities, where there are multiple and complex components and dimensions. I thought I was pretty well up on terminology, but I learned the words “fraysexual” and “lithromantic” last weekend. (I’m not going to attempt to define them, not least because they’re apparently controversial, but both fall somewhere on the grey part of the asexual spectrum.)

I also (as I often have before) came across people who were confused or frustrated or upset by terminology changing under them: they’d always called themselves “FTM” or “transsexual” or “bisexual” but they’d started finding that people told them that that wasn’t the correct word any more, or even that they were being offensive by calling themselves it. In some cases, people learn terminology for themselves which is very strongly considered “wrong”. Perhaps they started developing their identity in a space where the word “trannie” is used, or they had always thought that “gay” was an all-encompassing term that included what I would call “trans”. At best they’re likely to find that the term they have been identifying with gets corrected, at worst they may end up being excluded from groups or online spaces for being offensive.

Sometimes all of this leads to multiple waves of terminology change going on simultaneously. In the last few months I have encountered LGBT people who see “queer” as a homophobic insult; LGBT people who are aware of the insult use of “queer” but feel they have reclaimed the word as a positive identity; and LGBT people who are aware of both the previous uses, but feel “queer” is too associated with post-modern notions of gender and sexual identity and therefore rejected it again, though for very different reasons to the first group.

Terminology matters. If you’re running a service which is open to all men who have sex with men, but you describe it as a gay men’s service, some of the men you are trying to reach won’t use it, either because they don’t know it’s for them, or because they are offended by being classed as gay when they are not.  Yet at the same time, attempts to get terminology precisely right, and to insist that everyone keeps up with the latest usage, take up time and effort. Time and effort are pretty scarce commodities in the LGBT sector, where most of the work is done by volunteers or on the badly paid margins of community services. Disagreements over terminology make it difficult for service providers to do things like write equality policies and monitor diversity. They also scare people off engaging with communities they might find helpful. It is hard not to see a rejection of your preferred identity term as also being a rejection of your actual identity.

There is a trade-off to be reached somewhere between assuming everyone on the planet shares the same (heterosexual, gender binary) identity, and coming up with 7 billion individual words for our own individual identities. I’m not sure exactly where that stopping point is, but the point of words is to communicate. To me, it seems like it may sometimes be better to use slightly wrong words, or provide a longer description of a concept, rather than come up with more and more precisely correct words that mean nothing to listeners.

I am a complex human being, as is everyone else. My sexual, romantic and gendered feelings are complicated. There is never going to be one word that entirely sums up the entirety of that, and my identity is valid, even if it has no name.

Someone to understand

When I was about 9, my dad had a sign on his study door with a quote on it. I don’t remember the exact wording of the quote, and I have no idea who it was from (bear with me on this), but the gist of it was that all anyone really wants from life is to feel that someone, anyone, truly understands them. This would have been somewhere around 1994, so it was printed in Times New Roman on a piece of white copy paper – doubtless nowadays it would be illustrated by a picture of two cats staring into each other’s eyes and meme round Facebook.

The sentiment of that quote stuck with me, even though I’ve forgotten of the details. I’m often reminded of it within the LGBT “community”. Because, of course, there’s no such thing. There are endlessly, fragmenting, juxtaposing communities, that sometimes come together and sometimes break apart. For a start, lesbian and gay community groups tend to rapidly fragment along gender lines. We debate over whether the trans should really be in there or not. It’s pretty rare to see a true mix of ages, or a representative sample of ethnic diversity. Usually someoone ends up feeling a bit unwelcome, whether it’s the bisexuals, or the single, or those with kids, or the older people and the younger ones. So we split the space (formally or informally) down into sub-groups. I can’t speak for what goes on in all the sub-groups – after all, I don’t belong to many of them – but the ones I belong to often split again.

Often these splits turn acrimonious. I’ve seen it several times. Even in spaces which really try to be inclusive, someone feels excluded. They complain. Others get defensive. With it being LGBT related, often romance and/or sex are in the mix, making it all even more emotional. Someone goes too far in denouncing the other side, and it ends with the group banning someone, or even the group collapsing because the organisers can’t cope with all the nastiness.

Yet ironically, I think it all comes back to that wanting someone, anyone, to understand. For a lot of people, perhaps especially those without much support from family and friends, LGBT (or trans, or lesbian, or whatever) spaces are often the place where it seems like most acceptance is likely to be forthcoming. And for many people, it really is. But to be in that space and not feel accepted – or to be accused by someone else of not being accepting – that hurts. And because LGBT groups tend to have their accepting-ness formalised, overseen by committees and standing orders and policies, it’s often difficult to deal with the fact that people aren’t perfect. That much as we try to understand everyone, our own history and identity and other baggage makes it  easier to understand people who are more like us. And that when  people come to an identity-based group, searching for someone to understand them, it’s quite likely to end up with some clusters of people who have a lot in common, and other people who feel a bit left out.

I don’t know quite what the solution is. I can say we should focus on our similarities, and try to be inclusive and understanding of others, but that’s scarcely an insightful revelation, and doesn’t help with the situations where people are already trying. I think setting up separate spaces may be useful where there are sufficient numbers for everyone to belong to a group, and as long as it doesn’t encourage people to be inconsiderate – but a lot of the time those two conditions aren’t met. I think there’s a lot to be said for networking, and trying to get people in contact with lots of different groups where they may share an interest, but again that’s not always possible. But I suppose, as a start, it perhaps helps to remember that people generally are looking for someone to understand them.