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Controversial questions in the 2021 Census

August 2019 | by Rod Badams

Controversial questions on gender identity and sexual orientation are to be included in the 2021 Census in England and Wales.

These questions will differ from most of the census questions, in that both will be voluntary and only asked of respondents aged 16 or over. The only other voluntary question in the census will be the one on religion.

The inclusion of a gender identity question is controversial for two main reasons.

Firstly, its inclusion in a process as official as the national census gives gender identity — a recent, ill-defined and contested concept – a credibility which many will think is unjustified.

Secondly, the proposed wording of the question allows respondents to base their answers on self-perception, rather than anything factual. Evangelical Christians will also be concerned that it contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible that God created a person’s sex as a fixed characteristic. We will look at the proposed wording of the gender identity question in more detail later.

The government’s reasons for including these two controversial questions are set out in a White Paper, published in December and available online.

One of the reasons given for asking a gender identity question is to provide information about the transgender population, about which no current statistics exist, but which the White Paper interestingly predicts will be of small size.

According to the White Paper, ‘The inclusion of [this] question in the census would increase visibility and provide a better basis for identifying inequalities, needs, services and support for transgender people’.

The information collected will also assist the performance of anti-discrimination duties under the Equality Act 2010, argues the government.

Another reason given by the government for its inclusion is that some respondents did not feel the 2011 sex question provided adequate response options.

That question simply asked: ‘What is your sex?’ Respondents ticked either a box marked male or another marked female.

To try to extend this question’s scope, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has, over the past three years, considered and trialled various possible alternative formats.

One idea suggested a third box marked Other. In the end however, no satisfactory alternative was found, and the traditional binary choice format will be retained.

However, before answering the sex question, respondents will be alerted by a printed statement to a subsequent question on gender identity.

The wording of the gender identity question has yet to be decided, but will either be ‘Do you consider yourself to be trans?’ or ‘Is your gender the same as the sex you were registered at birth?’

The White Paper acknowledges that the gender identity question is entirely about self-perception.

It says, ‘[Gender identity] has been defined by the Equality and Human Rights Commission as “the way in which an individual identifies with a gender category”. This is based on an individual’s own perception of themselves and so the gender category with which a person identifies may not match the sex registered at birth’.

Whether or not a person has undergone any medical or legal process will not therefore be an issue. The only relevant factor will be what the respondent thinks about himself or herself.

The question on sexual orientation, although just as controversial for evangelical Christians, for substantial biblical reasons, is in a slightly different category.

Under the 2010 Equality Act, sexual orientation is a protected characteristic which not only places it within a statutory legal framework, but imposes practical obligations on public authorities and other agencies and service providers.

It is not surprising therefore, that the government intends to use the 2021 Census ‘to collect information on sexual orientation to meet the needs for better quality information on the lesbian, gay and bisexual population for monitoring and supporting anti-discrimination duties under the Equality Act 2010’.

The logic of its inclusion in the census will not, however, make it any more welcome to evangelical Christians. Sexual orientation is an unbiblical concept, and its official recognition as a protected characteristic misplaced.

Another matter still to be resolved is how the questions on gender identity and sexual orientation are to be made voluntary.

The simplest way would be to state on the census form, as happens with the question on religion: This question is voluntary.

However, an alternative being explored is to retain them as mainstream compulsory questions, but to offer a prefer not to say option, effectively making any response voluntary.

Evangelical Christians will undoubtedly prefer the first option, thus removing the need to validate the question by having to engage with it at all.

The census will take place on Sunday 21 March 2021. A separate census on the same date in Scotland and Northern Ireland will consist of questions whose topics and wording will be locally-determined.

Rod Badams, trustee of The Christian Institute, formerly worked at FIEC and Christians at Work, and as a journalist.