18 March 2021

How the 2021 census could impact the LGBTQ community

New questions on the 2021 census enable people to identify as LGBTQ without sharing that information with their household.

A shot of the census form with pen

The census takes place every 10 years and requires all households to complete a form  that gathers vital information to help plan services such as transport, education and healthcare. This information includes what type of home you live in, who lives there and how many vehicles you use. 

It also includes personal details such as national identity, marital status, employment status, religion and a recent addition which enables people to identify their gender and sexual identity without sharing that information with their household. 

Households must complete the census by law, or face a fine of up to £1,000. But what is it for? According to the UK government, submitting your information to the census means “you can play your part in building a picture of us all,” which “helps decide how services are planned and funded in your local area.” (census.gov.uk)  

Life has changed drastically over the past ten years, with major advances in technology, changes to transport and healthcare systems, and more societal shifts like flexible working patterns (due to the pandemic), and the normalisation of gender and sexual diversity. With such changes, the census for England and Wales has been updated to better understand its current population, featuring questions about gender and sexual identity for the first time in history. 

Dr Lukasz Szulc is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society for the Department of Sociological Studies. His work is dedicated to cultural and critical media studies, investigating the role of media in everyday life. Dr Szulc is particularly interested in the intersections of queer, national and transnational identities in the context of globalisation and digital media, and his current research project looks into the transformations of identity in the digital media landscape of the early XXI century.

Speaking to the census, Dr Szulc said: “It’s a good decision to ask the questions about gender and sexual identity in the census. It allows different groups of LGBTQ people to be visible in the data.

It allows different groups of LGBTQ people to be visible in the data.

“Invisibility of LGBTQ people in official statistics, academic research and the media, has historically been an issue for our community, and it has contributed to a lack of knowledge about the lives and needs of this particular group.

“The questions about gender and sexual identity will allow researchers to juxtapose the data with other important questions in the census, painting a more precise picture of LGBTQ people’s needs – for example in terms of mental health – and to compare LGBTQs with the general population in this respect.”

The important information collected from the census will be made publicly available and is intended to be used to provide support and funding where it’s needed. Relevant figures and statistics can be used by health practitioners and policymakers to inform their decisions, for example. 

“In my experience, the LGBTQ community has been largely supportive of the new changes to the census,” said Dr Szulc. “There are many LGBTQ charities and influencers who encourage the community to truthfully state their gender and sexual identity and on Twitter, the hashtag #ProudToBeCounted is trending in support of people doing just that.”

There are many LGBTQ charities and influencers who encourage the community to truthfully state their gender and sexual identity, [using] the hashtag #ProudToBeCounted [...].

For the 2021 census, LGBTQ people can request an individual access code to submit information about their gender or sexual identity, separately and privately. The individual code aims to collect accurate information from people who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe sharing this info with their household.

“This is a great development and an important change for those who might otherwise prefer to conceal their identity to ensure their own safety,” said Dr Szulc. “And some LGBTQ charities are offering assistance in filling in the form to help those who need it, like Switchboard.”

“The importance of this change is that it gives people in the LGBTQ community a feeling of validation and acknowledgement that we are listened to, that our voices matter and that we don’t have to fit within officially predefined options. 

It’s also an important message to those currently questioning and exploring their gender and sexuality that LGBTQ identities are as valid as any other gender and sexual identification.”

It gives people in the LGBTQ community a feeling of validation and acknowledgement that we are listened to [and] that our voices matter.

Robust data about LGBTQ people could also inform major changes in support of the most vulnerable people in our community, such as better health services for trans, intersex and non-binary people, legal assistance to LGBTQ migrants and refugees, or housing support for homeless and vulnerably housed LGBTQs. 

But while the changes to the 2021 census are a step in the right direction, they aren’t perfect, says Dr Szulc. 

“There are still issues that are important to raise. The question regarding gender identity is only visible to people who are 16 years or older. A lot of public discussion about the rights of trans, intersex and non-binary people in the UK is now about health provisions and legal recognition for children and teenagers. So choosing not to collect gender identity data from this particular group isn’t helpful to inform these debates.

“And while the census does allow for non-binary gender identifications, one of the first questions gives binary sex options only – so male or female – without the option for an alternative answer. It doesn’t recognise that some LGBTQ people don’t identify with any of these options or that they simply think about their sex beyond the binary. 

“Recently, a High Court judge ordered that guidance for questions around male or female sex should tell the respondents to provide their state-validated sex (as stated in their birth certificates or gender recognition certificates). But before this, the Office for National Statistics had framed their guidance more openly, including a broader category of ‘legal documents’ such as passports, where it is easier to change your sex. 

“The new decision sadly discriminates against people who identify differently to the sex officially recognised by the state. But despite these shortcomings, the introduction of the new questions in the census for England and Wales is a good starting point in a discussion about how main official statistics could accurately reflect social complexity and recognise the diversity of gender and sexual identities.” 

Find out more about Dr Szulc’s work or follow him on Twitter

Further resources

Support for completing the census without informing your household, from LGBT Switchboard

How to request an individual access code, from the UK government website

BBC news item: Judge orders change to sex question guidance

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