Trans people will be able to choose their gender for next census after bill passes final stage

Gabriella Swerling
The next census will enable trans people to “choose their gender” for the first time, after the controversial Bill passed its final stage in the Houses of Parliament.    - AFP

The next census will enable trans people to choose their gender for the first time, after the controversial Bill passed its final stage in the Houses of Parliament. 

A census collects demographic information about all UK residents and takes place in the UK every decade, with the next one planned for March 2021. 

However, on Tuesday, MPs concluded the third reading of the The Census (Return of Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill. This means that trans people will be able to input their gender in addition to the mandatory sex question.

Trans rights campaigners have lauded the inclusion of new questions on the next census as “a major victory for equality”. However feminist academics have warned against “self-identification” on the national survey claiming that it “does not exist to validate people’s identities”. 

It is now awaiting Royal Assent meaning it will become ratified in law. The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on May 1, 2019, received its first reading in the House of Commons in June 2019 and its Second Reading in July 2019.

The Bill adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of topics that a census may ask about in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. It also provides that there is no criminal penalty for not responding to these questions and does not require either of these topics to be asked about.

Following the conclusion of the third reading, Emma Meehan, assistant director of public affairs at the LGBT Foundation charity, said: “We are incredibly pleased that the Census will be more trans inclusive, and believe this is a major victory for equality. 

“Trans people experience high levels of discrimination and multiple barriers in accessing services, in part as there remains a complete lack of accurate population data for them. 

“This makes the provision of effective services supporting and meeting the needs of the community more challenging. Whilst there remains progress to be made, this is nonetheless an important step in ensuring that we live in a society where trans people are treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to everybody else.” 

She added: “Trans people should not have to justify their existence, and the identities of trans people should not be up for debate.” 

In response, Professor Rosa Freedman, professor of law, conflict, and global development at the University of Reading, said: “The census does not exist to validate people’s identities.” 

“The purpose of the census is to gather data that allows the government to plan for the population’s needs. That includes healthcare, education, programmes to address youth violence, social services provisions, and many more issue areas. 

“The sex question is crucial to for the government to be able to plan for the needs of the country, whether it is looking at prostate and cervical cancers or at the gap in earnings between females and males.”

However Professor Freedman, who describes herself as a “radical feminist”, added: “The government needs to be able to gather data on the rising numbers of transgender children and of detransitioners in order better to understand and provide for the needs of those groups. 

“None of these issues can be addressed if sex and transgender are conflated in the census. Instead of conflating sex and transgender, we need to have questions on both.”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is responsible for the census in England and Wales. It recently published its guidance on how it plans to ask a question on the topic of gender identity for the first time in a census in 2021.

The question will be: ‘Is your gender the same as the sex you were registered at birth?’ and the ONS said this will be voluntary and only asked of people aged 16 and over. 

The census sex question has been in place since 1801, however the new guidance asks that people respond using their lived sex, whether that corresponds to what is on their birth certificate or not.

An ONS spokesman said: “Securing royal assent of the Census Bill is an important part of our preparations for the 2021 Census.

“The new voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, for people aged 16 and over, are now subject to Parliamentary approval in the Census Order and Regulations.

“Gathering this information will ultimately help local communities by allowing charities, local and central government to understand the services people from different groups need and monitor equality.”