2021 Census: a step in the right direction for LGBTQ+ recognition


For the first time in UK history, the 2021 census will allow LGBTQ+ individuals the opportunity to state their sexual and gender identities

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Image by Quinn Dombrowski, https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/28359633187

By Matthew King

Every ten years, the UK government takes a record of all people and households in the UK, asking them about their jobs, education, ethnic background etc. Every time the census is distributed the questions change, and the 2021 census is no different. This year’s census is the first in UK history to include options related to gender identity and sexual orientation.

In relation to gender questions on the census, previous years only allowed individuals the option to identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, with no option to state any other identity. In 2011, the option to include whether you were in a ‘same sex’ relationship was added, but there was no option to specify sexual identity.

It seems strange to believe that only ten years ago the census did not ask these pivotal questions. This begs the question; is the government’s inclusion of these questions now a step in the right direction for equality? Or simply a new angle to gain data, or performative virtue signalling?

Despite the fact that the inclusion of these questions is a positive movement forward for trans recognition, it comes at a time when transphobic policy is being passed through government. Last month, Nouse reported on the ways in which trans rights are being threatened in the UK, describing issues such as healthcare access and gender-neutral toilets.

Additionally, the government have been under immense scrutiny recently for their slow stance in banning gay conversion therapy. Both former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have made pledges to eradicate conversion therapy. However, the government has been criticised for not fulfilling their promises. Just last week Johnson was quoted as labelling conversion therapy as both “repulsive” and “abhorrent”, yet stated that it was a “technically complex” problem. The government’s inaction regarding this has led to three of Johnson’s advisors to quit. The advisors stated that the government is a "hostile environment" for LGBTQ+ people.

With these issues in mind, could the move to include gender identity and sexual preference within this year’s census be performative when placed against the growing backdrop of transphobic policies and LGBTQ+ inaction from the UK government?

Beyond the politics surrounding the issue, it is still a crucial step forward for more national recognition of LGBTQ+ individuals. According to the official census site, the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation records will help to provide “better information on the LGBTQ+ population” and “help organisations to deal with any inequalities people may face and show where services are needed” as the information provides local numbers of LGBTQ+ populations, not simply national ones. These questions are “voluntary” and are only asked to people over the age of 16.

The question in the census regarding gender identity is as follows: "Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?". This is then followed up with the option to specify which gender the individual identifies with.

Despite the fact that individuals can opt-out of these questions and can, if they wish, request an individual questionnaire so that no one else can see their answers, some are using the census to ‘come out’ to family. This in itself is a revolutionary use of the census. Until now, the completion of it had little impact on the individual, and only served the purpose of providing national data sets. The new questions added now mean that the census can be used to allow individuals the chance to officiate their identity, and feel a sense of national and legal recognition in doing so.

Many individuals took to Twitter to discuss this, with a general consensus that, whilst scary, the ability to officially state their gender identity and sexual orientation gave a sense of fulfilment and recognition that they had not experienced prior. Others discussed how they felt uncomfortable when asked by parents about answering the question, with some opting to say ‘straight’ or not disclose their actual gender identity. Whilst this shows that the disclosure of sexual and gender identity is still a taboo subject for many, the inclusion of these questions on the census allows for further recognition of sexual and gender identities, which could lead to further normalisation of such identities.

The LGBTQ+ charity, Stonewall, has made an official statement regarding the new changes. Their Chief Executive, Nancy Kelley, described the 2021 census as “a historic moment for LGBT+ communities''. She continued, stating that “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.

“Now we need to make sure all lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in England and Wales feel confident and supported to fill in the Census on 21 March.”

As Kelley states, the inclusion of the new questions allows for the increased visibility of the community. It can be hoped that movements from the government such as these further distance us from archaic views such as Thatcher’s oppressive ‘Section 28’ policy in the ‘80s. The census acts as a starting point towards this wider recognition, and for allowing the community to feel more accepted in the wider UK community.

To summarise, despite the arguments of whether the move is performative or not,  the inclusion of these new questions is not only a historic move, in that it allows for further recognition of the LGBTQ+ community, but is also historic in the use of the census itself. Prior to this year, the census has existed to provide a simple necessity – collect data about the population and present it on a national scale. The inclusion of gender and sexual identity on this year’s census allows for the questionnaire to become more than this. It provides LBGTQ+ individuals with the unprecedented opportunity to have their identity recognised in an official document, providing them with an individual sense of recognition which will lead to a wider, national, improved understanding of the community and their place within our wider society.