Gender Identity in the 2021 Census

Stratford in the National Census

It’s pretty scary when you get to an age where another 10 years comes and goes so quick. However, a little solace comes from being a geographer and that is to geek out about the UK census, which happens every ten years – years which end in ‘1’. Actually for me, while the taking of the census is an exciting discussion point for us geographers, it will still be around a year before any data comes of it for us to trawl through and pick apart.

Once the census gets off and running, I’ll look at it more closely, but for this short post, I want to focus on one thing in particular that I am exceptionally excited for and admittedly relieved. That is the inclusion of a question, finally, about gender identity.

A page in the “Census 2021: Your Questions Answered” pamphlet

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) summarised its reasons for including the question in an article titled “Sex and gender identity question development for Census 2021: How we researched, developed and tested the Census 2021 questions on sex and gender identity.” For me, it was very interesting reading.

Since the census is an important tool for planning public services and funding, representation in the census is exceptionally important for marginalised and under-represented groups. For one thing, we don’t even know how many gender non-conforming people like myself are even out there because in every previous census to date, there was no question other than asking for assigned sex at birth (male or female). While the sex question will remain unchanged in the census, there will be a note that an optional question regarding gender identity will follow later on in the survey. In 2018, the ONS stated bluntly that they “don’t know” how many transgender people there are in the UK, as “no robust data on the UK trans population exists.” There is a tentative estimate that it is approximately 200,000-500,000. And gender-nonconforming people are a beautifully diverse bunch too – subscribe and listen to the Fifty Shades of Gender podcast to see (or hear) what I mean!

Just one example of why representation of transgender people is needed in the census is the under-funded, limited and over-subscribed NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS). This depressing Reddit thread from 2018, where someone collated wait-times for individual GIDS around the country, showed queues as long as 48 months, and that is just for the initial consultation appointment. I know from personal experience that those wait-times have since got longer. When I joined the ‘back of the queue’ for Nottingham’s GIDS in January 2020 (there are currently no GIDS serving the East Anglia region), the referral letter stated a 30-month wait – so that’s summer 2022, then, even if things haven’t since been on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This lack of provision can have serious consequences for the well-being of people. The stories, thoughts and feelings shared by close friends in the LGBT+ community corroborate the stories told in this iNews piece from last summer: “Charities having to ‘make up for shortcomings’ of the NHS as transgender people could wait four years for appointments”.

There are many reasons why I, personally, can bear a 30-month wait to be seen. I’m not a trans child fearing what puberty will bring and I’m accepted by my family and welcomed at work. The privileges I have help to absorb bouts of gender dysphoria, abuse (“#BoycottTheCensus” is a perfect example where there is misconception at best and outright harmful bigotry at worse) and micro-aggressions. But for others without some of these privileges, it can be a matter of life-or-death, not just a matter of quality of life.

However there has been at least one attempt at a nation-wide census, unofficially anyway. 2021 is the 8th year that the Gender Census has been running – a ‘little nonbinary activism’ says its creator, Cassian. And this year it has really taken off!

One thing that will be interesting will be to compare the results from the Gender Census and the 2021 Census. A massive thank you to Cassian for all their hard work, and it’s wonderful to see efforts paying off. For anyone wanting to participate in the Gender Census concerned about their personal data, you can make an informed decision after reading this.

In conclusion, the inclusion of a question regarding gender identity in the official census is very welcome. There are some that are saying it’s too-little-too-late, but for me, it’s a good start – another formal recognition by the government that we exist. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the publication of data in a year’s time and what the consequences of such findings will be.

A hero of mine, Stacey Abrams, put it perfectly for me when talking about the US 2020 Census: “If we don’t get counted, we simply won’t count.

*** UPDATE: On census day itself, I posted an update giving my take on the process itself. Go check it out! ***


Thank you! All my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee.

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