Monday, 16 November 2009

A Question of Sexuality - or Not

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As a family genealogy geek I've spent a lot of time recently looking through the PDF files of the Irish Census from 1911. Indeed some friends will doubtless tell you of my excitement as the time for the County Londonderry returns to go online earlier in the year.

I know the importance in history of the accuracy of the information that is given. I also like the fact that some relatives have given extra information* not required, but which for history makes things easier to look into a verify. Therefore when I heard that the Government were considering adding a question about sexuality to the 2011 census I thought about whether this was a good idea or not.

There are two official takes on it, first there is the one of my former colleagues at the Office of National Statistics (ONS) who say that it won't provide a true reflection of the number of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual members of society. Then there is view of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who say it is vital to know how many gays, lesbians and bisexuals there are in Britain, where they live and what jobs they do so the progress of equality legislation can be measured.

I'd say that both are partially correct. The inclusion of the question isn't going to give an accurate reflection, indeed one of the most misrepresented groups would be the bi-sexual population. Anyone who spends anytime around the gay community will know that they are people out there who will say 'I'm not gay but...' the but is of course that they will happily engage in sexual acts with those of the same sex. There will be bisexuals out there who are in monogamous (or not**) 'heterosexual' relationships and not all of them will be totally open telling their partner that is the case, so to fill it in on a census form would definitely be out.

The census is there to gather an accurate picture of the population, the question of sexuality is not even one that every member of society is able to answer. Coming out is hard enough for many of us, to possibly feel obliged to do so, or lie about it on a census form when others around you are filling it in is an issue. In fact looking to see what would have happened in previous census returns for myself in 1991 I was denying my own sexuality, so would not have given an accurate return to that question. In 2001 I had just moved in with my ex-fiancée's parents, who fortunately did know my sexuality, but could have been embarrassing otherwise. That is just me, and while I don't wear it on my sleeve it is not something that is hidden from people around, people who will also appear on a census return.

What about people in residences of multiple occupancy? I notice the wording of the question appears to only cover straight, bi or gay. So what about the whole grey area of transgender/transsexual identities? Or what about asexuality or polyamorous relationships? Indeed it is a very complex issue and not one that can be passed of in one question and tick box. A spokesperson for the ONS said:

"A suite of questions would be necessary to collect data on the different dimensions of sexual orientation, including attraction, behaviour and identity."
Even then are we using the Kinsey scale for each of the three aspects? Indeed passed on the three question option my answers will have been changing over the last two census years and will be different again at the next one.

Yeah I know we already have the optional question about religion, but people are more prepared to talk about that, or simply write in Jedi. However, there is talk of rephrasing that question as a two-parter, the first asking "Do you identify with a religion?" then the yes respondents filling in which.

Obviously I'm not advocating 'don't ask, don't tell' as that hides more things behind the scenes than a level of openness will provide. However, I'm with the ONS on this one. The question cannot be worded in a way that will provide an accurate measurement, at this time. For starters it is not a complete question, second while there many out there are gay and proud, there are also many who are bi and shy.

From personal experience I would say that many straight and especially religious people may be opting out of answering the question. Indeed many religious groups are already saying it is an invasion of privacy. There is also as I pointed out liable to be a skew to the gay and straight responses and the bi-sexual (and others) segment of identity is going to be under-represented through a number of reasons. Or course that is personal anecdotal opinion and not quantitative (which some will argue is the point of the census question) but I think if there was a way to measure it (which I don't think there is) it would bear out in practise.

*Examples include cities rather than just County or other UK Country. Widow(er)s including length of marriage and children details when this was only requested of couples.

** Though I'll focus on the monogamous ones rather than those that also cheat, not a condition restricted to gay or bi but also present amongst the straight community, in case Jan Moir is reading this.


  1. Three Kinsey scores... gods that's a dangerous road that ends up in a full Klein grid!

    I went to the first LGB issues and priorities roundtable meeting at EHRC about 18 months ago entirely undecided on the issue of the census. There were some arguing for the question to be on the Household Survey instead, some arguing that it should be on the census.

    I suggested they embrace the power of "And" - the differences in rates of reporting between the two would tell us interesting things as well as what we would learn from the data in each survey itself.

  2. LOL well yeah but my behaviour score in 2001, against attraction and identity would have been far straighter. Yes and no is just too limiting a question on that one. Of course a Kinsey scale is not understood by all the census participates, so probably won't work.

    From my statistician's hat I just dn't think including a question on sexual idendity is going to work for the goals that EHRC are saying that it will. Having had enough issue with businesses filling in the Business surveys that I worked on, even when they knew that individual company identity would be hidden for the public record, I can sense that the public census will be more problematic at disclosing the truth, people know those records will be made public in full in the future.

    Although I admit I do not have a solution to get around the problem, but a problem there is.