Debbie Hayton

Why sex matters when it comes to the census

Why sex matters when it comes to the census
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What sex are you? It's a simple question and one that most of those filling out this year's census will answer quickly before moving on. But for others, the decision to ask this – rather than allow people to state what gender they think they are – is one laced with controversy.

This shouldn't be the case. After all, we have known that there are two sexes since the dawn of time, and we are quite capable of distinguishing them. These two sexes have different needs; and men and women also face different risks. 

Only one will need cervical cancer screening, for instance. And while men are more likely to get a high-flying job (last year, there were more blokes called David running FTSE 100 companies than there were women) they are also more likely to die younger, kill themselves or end up in prison.

Women are more likely to experience domestic violence during their lifetimes or suffer sexual abuse. And throughout the world, it is females who so often get the poorer deal. Despite the best efforts of the government, for example, the so-called gender pay gap remains stubbornly wide. In 2020, women still earned 15.5 per cent less than men.

We need the census to address these problems by monitoring the different experiences of men and women; without it, we are guessing.

When the census was last held, back in 2011, individuals could answer according to what gender they felt themselves to be. In a census that elsewhere identified 177,000 Jedi Knights, it was probably just as well that more people did not realise they could also choose their gender on the basis of their feelings.

Today’s world is a very different place. Five years after the Women and Equalities Committee recommended the self-identification of legal gender, few people will be unaware of the political storm they unleashed. Transgender people are no longer in the shadows; we know our rights. 

Nor are we a vanishingly small group of people as was previously supposed. It is a broad category that encompasses a wide range of identities, including those formerly known as transvestites. In 2005, Långström and Zucker found that almost three per cent of men reported at least one episode of transvestic fetishism. We don’t hear those words too often these days, but these people do not change; they are now transwomen, the same as me. For most, though, it is possibly something that they keep very private. But what better opportunity to validate those feelings than the confidential census form?

It was therefore reassuring to get some clarity from Sir Ian Diamond, chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority that 'the question on sex is very simply your legal sex.'

While that sounds straightforward, it does need explaining. Most people’s legal sex is the same as their biological sex, but not so for the roughly 5000 people with Gender Recognition Certificates. In my view, it is not ideal that legal paperwork compromises the integrity of the data in that way, but at least the impact is limited to those who have gone through the legal process to change their sex. But how many more will defy the instructions and indicate their preferred gender in any case?

As a transgender person, I am pleased with the addition of a voluntary question later in the census: 'Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?' For the first time, our numbers in this country will be known. This will offer service providers data to inform their planning, rather than have to rely on estimates. 

This year's census will also shine a light on the experience of transgender people in twenty first century Britain. Are we really all oppressed and downtrodden as some claim, or are some of us at least doing rather well for ourselves? We won’t need to guess, or rely on surveys; we will know.

What we do not yet know, though, is the approach north of the border. The census is a devolved matter and Scottish guidance may well be different. Last year, the SNP's Fiona Hyslop indicated that, 'the registrar general will conduct a census that includes a binary sex question, supported by guidance on self-identification, and that I support that approach for Scotland’s 2021 census.'

This is the wrong approach and I'm glad the government in Westminster has, at least, seen sense. The purpose of the census was never to validate identities or protect feelings; it is to collect data to inform present and future needs, including those applicable to transgender people such as myself. 

It is really no hardship for me to indicate my sex (male), and then identify myself as transgender. Facts are facts, I cannot change them, but I can supply the data that is needed to protect and extend services for male-to-female transgender people.