This weekend’s census in England and Wales has been overshadowed by a debate on questions of sex and gender identity – Q3 and Q27 to be precise – but rather less has been said about Q26, which for the first time will gather data on sexual orientation.
Last week, legal action brought by Fair Play for Women (FPFW) forced the Office of National Statistics (ONS) into an embarrassing U-turn over the question of sex. Vague language was hastily removed from official guidance, leaving a clear instruction for everyone to declare the sex on our birth certificate.
Apart from around 5000 transsexual people who hold a gender recognition certificate, that is our biological sex. The howls of protest from a rather larger group of self-identified transgender people were predictable. After being fed the message that they could answer as they pleased, some expressed their defiance on social media. Journalist Paris Lees was one of many Tweeting, “I won’t comply.”
FPFW were concerned that self-identified sex would obfuscate the data on women. But equally vulnerable is the information on sexual orientation. The 2021 census should have provided a detailed breakdown on the experiences of lesbian and gay people by sex, age, ethnicity, education and employment.
… self-identification of sex by heterosexual people has the potential to overwhelm the data on lesbians, particularly among the youth. Worse, since the ONS has conflated gay or lesbian in a single tick box, it may be impossible to disentangle biological males from biological females.
Sexual orientation used to indicate the sex that we were attracted to. No longer it seems, certainly in the minds of Stonewall UK who tie themselves in knots to avoid defining it:
“Sexual orientation: A person’s sexual attraction to other people, or lack thereof. Along with romantic orientation, this forms a person’s orientation identity.” – Stonewall, Glossary of Terms
Let’s be clear about this. I may be transsexual but no transition can change my male sex. I am also married to a woman: straight/heterosexual, to use the language of the ONS.
But other female-attracted transwomen think differently. Those who believe themselves to be female are also likely to identify as lesbian, and the numbers may be significant. A Gallup study of 15349 Americans published earlier this year indicated that 0.6% of US adults were transgender, almost as many as the 0.7% who identified as lesbian. Among young people, aged 18 to 23, lesbians (1.4%) were outnumbered by transgender people (1.8%).
If the UK is similar, self-identification of sex by heterosexual people has the potential to overwhelm the data on lesbians, particularly among the youth. Worse, since the ONS has conflated gay or lesbian in a single tick box, it may be impossible to disentangle biological males from biological females.
By pandering to Stonewall and the transgender lobby with their laissez-faire approach, the ONS has let us all down. FPFW may have forced them to change the guidance, but only after attitudes had become entrenched. Indeed, many forms had already been returned. This census could have clearly distinguished the experiences of gay and lesbian people, bisexuals (of both sexes), transwomen, transmen and people of both sexes who see themselves as non-binary. Instead we may end up bundled up once again in yet another unsatisfactory LGBT conflation.
Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.