The next census (in 2021) might be the first for England and Wales to include questions about gender identity and sexual orientation.
What is the census?
Census statistics provide a snapshot of the population and its characteristics. These statistics often underpin funding allocations for public services. It is therefore important that the census paints an accurate picture of society.
The Office of National Statistics has recently published the results of a consultation seeking views on the content of the census. The consultation indicated that there is a need for improved information on sexual orientation and gender identity in society.
Generally, a person’s sexual orientation relates to the gender to which they are attracted. It covers a range of options, including heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and others. Gender identity is a person’s personal experience of their own gender. This is a particularly important issue for transgender people, who do not identify with the gender with which they were assigned at birth.
Questions about sexual orientation and gender identity will be trialled with smaller populations by local authorities before being considered to become an official part of the census.
Why does this affect human rights?
The UK government has committed to eliminating discrimination (for example, through the Equality Act 2010) but gaps in available social data concerning sexual orientation and gender identity have made it difficult to create effective policies to tackle discrimination.
The rights of transgender people have historically been overlooked. If recognition of alternative gender identity becomes commonplace, it may increase the general understanding that not everyone identifies as male or female. Similarly, by including options for sexual orientation on the census, it sends a message that society recognises various orientations, and that can have a legitimising effect.
There are, however, some practical difficulties with including such questions on the census. For example, where one household member completes the census, other members may choose not to reveal their true answer. Similarly, people might make assumptions if a person opts to leave a question about sexual orientation or gender identity unanswered.
2021 census director, Ian Cope, said “We will continue to discuss this… and to test different question options”. Countries like Nepal, India and Australia already include gender identity questions in their census.
Learn more about how human rights protect transgender people and the long road to legal recognition of the rights of transgender people. Read our short history of homophobia and take a look at our other equality resources.