Neil Cobb (Blog Editor)
I assume that like me many of you in the UK will have come home in the last few days to a large purple packet on your doormat, with the 2011 Census questionnaire inside. The UK Census is carried out every ten years, and as the explanatory notes make clear, we are all expected to take part “so that services in [our] area – like schools, hospitals, housing, roads and emergency services – can be planned and funded in the future”. However, it was only when I sat down to complete the document that I remembered that one question has been omitted, yet again, from the questions posed to respondents: a question asking for information about the sexual orientation of householders and their families. My gut reaction was one of irritation, followed quickly by foreboding: as a self-identified gay man, I was completing a document that would define future funding of the services in my local area in a way that completely ignored my sexual identity. What did this mean for me, and other LGB people in the UK?
Much has changed for the better for LGB people since the last Census was carried out in 2001, not least the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected characteristic which must be actively addressed by public bodies under the Single Equality Duty. Yet today the government continues to refuse to ask us about our sexual identities. Whether, and how, to ask questions for statistical purposes about sexual orientation has been an issue of concern for the Office of National Statistics (ONS) since at least 2006, when it set up the Sexual Identity Project, which has been considering the issue in consultation with public bodies, academics, NGOs and LGB groups. As part of that project, it was recognised, at least, that failure to include sexual identity in the 2011 Census was controversial, and as such the ONS carried out a specific consultation on the issue, well before the Census was due. You can read the full consultation report here, and a later briefing paper from the ONS here.
The conclusion that the ONS should not request information about sexual identity in the 2011 Census has been frustrating for many LGB organisations. Stonewall has argued that the absence of a specific question on sexual orientation is an unacceptable omission from the 2011 Census, stating on its website: “The Government is using the figure of 5-7% of the population which Stonewall feels is a reasonable estimate. However, there is no hard data on the number of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in the UK as no national census has ever asked people to define their sexuality”.
As the ONS points out, no other country currently collects statistical data about sexual orientation. This is not through a lack of interest – countries like Canada and New Zealand have demonstrated a clear commitment to LGB equality, but have found the problems with information gathering around sexual orientation to be insurmountable. The ONS itself provides three key justifications for omitting sexual orientation from the Census questionnaires. Each of these arguments shares a common theme: the aim of the Census, argues the ONS, is to provide objective and accurate information about the general public, and the evaluation of sexual identity is intrinsically prone to inaccuracy.
Intriguingly, the first argument put forward by the ONS is indebted to the insights of queer theory; indeed, the ONS actually cites an obviously opinion-forming seminar attended by their delegates entitled “Queering Statistics”, organised by the Royal Statistical Society no less. It notes that sexuality is “multi-faceted and difficult to define”, and that the idea that there is any coherency to the concepts of ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’ or any other sexual identity is laughably outdated. The upshot is that creating a question about sexual identity seems to be conceptually almost impossible.
ONS’s second argument is that, irrespective of these conceptual difficulties, the quality of the data collected is likely to be affected by under-reporting from LGB people. There are obvious and understandable reasons for this conclusion, given the role still played by homophobia in preventing individuals from ‘coming out’, especially when sexual identity crosscuts with class, race and religious belief. In light of this, the ONS warns that if a question on sexual identity were posed, “in the likely circumstance in which a significant or majority proportion of the lesbian and gay community were not in a position to disclose their sexual orientation, such inaccurate quantitative data could then be used to reduce the level of recognition, funding of or service provision to that community”.
The third and final argument put forward by the ONS is that questions about sexual identity would be “unacceptable” to a significant proportion of the general public, especially where respondents “could not perceive the value in collecting such responses”, and as a consequence the response rate to the survey could be seriously affected, as respondents simply ignore the question. A survey in New Zealand, cited by the ONS, suggests that those “who objected most strongly to such a question were respondents from certain ethnic and religious groups, rural areas and older respondents”.
I get the gist of what the ONS is thinking.
Sexuality is difficult to define and to ask people about, both those who might self-identify as LGB, and the ‘mainstream’ which does not. But where exactly does this logic take us? These problems lie at the very heart of sexuality and sexual inequality. The uncertainty of sexual identity is inevitable, as queer theory has demonstrated. It is a problem intrinsic to any and all attempts to define desire. More importantly, it is an issue that cannot be simply resolved through further research, and as such the practical effect of the decision of the ONS to keep the issue ‘under review’ is to prevent collection of this data indefinitely. What is more, the claim that sexuality is unusually difficult to pin down is inconsistent when one considers that ‘race’ and ‘disability’ – both included in the Census – have been subject to similar ‘postmodern’ scrutiny in recent years, under which the apparent objectivity of these characteristics has been revealed to be no more than a social construction too.
Of course, the difficulties created by continuing anxieties among some LGB people about nominating their sexuality are important and complex. But if the ONS were to wait until these issues were resolved, there would be no need to collect the data. The ONS is, of course, in the business of objectivity and uncovering ‘truths’ about the population. But many of the established questions hardly lend themselves to accuracy, as the debacle over the religious status of ‘Jedi’ in the 2001 Census has demonstrated. Surely the better response to the general argument put forward by the ONS that data collected about sexuality will be inaccurate is not to prohibit collection of any data at all, but to better educate those who might fail to understand the limitations of these statistics?
And that final insidious idea that a question of this kind might be objectionable to those who are uneasy with being asked such a question just doesn’t work for me. It suggests, once again, that progress for LGB people is tied inevitably to the sensitivities of the mainstream public. Would a similar claim realistically ever be made that the objections of racists, or atheists, should permit the omission of questions about ethnic background and religious belief that can both be found in the 2011 Census? And the attempt to pin the blame on the usual suspects – the old, the ethnic and religious minorities, the non-city dwellers – fails to recognise that it is just these people who are most in need of LGB-related services and indeed may be most desperate for a voice in the Census.
What is more, the ONS completely fails to drawn attention to the fact that sexuality pervades the Census questionnaire as it stands. The ONS has had no problem at all about asking participants to state their marital status, even though it now includes the option of civil partnership, ensuring the ‘affianced’ elements of the LGB community are rendered visible, with distorting effect. Indeed, those heterosexuals who object to being asked about their sexual identities are answering exactly this question every time they tick that they are ‘married’ or ‘divorced’ in other parts of the survey. Nominating either marital status has always been a clear statement of heterosexual orientation.
Taking LGB inequality seriously means giving a voice to those who are otherwise marginalised. Census data about sexual orientation collected by the government is never going to be objective. But what data ever is? Indeed, perhaps this says more about the dangers of the obsession of the ONS with objectivity when it comes to tackling adequately the injustice of inequality in British society, than the practical impossibility of asking questions about sexual identity in census questionnaires.
We’ve been here before. Earlier this year, Gender & Law at Durham (GLAD) responded to the coalition government’s consultation paper on the Single Equality Duty, in which it was proposed that public bodies should not be required to collect data from employees about sexual identity as a matter of course, on the ground that some employers and employees “may not be ready” to be asked “sensitive” questions of this kind. We argued instead that the diversity and equality project depended on this data, even if it needed to be treated with caution. Surely it is better to collect data about sexuality in the knowledge that, like any data, it must be taken with a large pinch of salt, then to never collect that data at all. And with this thought, I sat down to complete the survey. “Here’s a snapshot of my life right now”, I thought, “but only the bits that the state thinks really matter.”