United Kingdom Census 2011

Here in the UK we’re asked to complete a census every 10 years. It is a legal requirement that all households accurately record certain details of those present on the day of the census, these details include each person’s ‘sex’. Unfortunately this question is worded simply as:

Tumblr user lottelodge shares a photograph of the 2011 'What is your sex?' question, the answers are stuck out and instead the following is written 'Sex is not binary. Gender is important. What about trans people?'2, What is your sex?

[] Male   [] Female

There is no separate field for gender.

Before the 2001 census, I wrote to the organisers inquiring how I as an androgynous individual with a non-binary gender identity should answer this question and why more options were not given. As it is a legal requirement to complete this question accurately, I was quite concerned by the fact that I could not do so given the options present.

At that time I was told that gender variant people are too small a group to be recorded in the census and that smaller minorities are not reflected in the census statistics as they could be identified within their communities which could affect their safety. I was told that I would not be prosecuted for leaving the question blank, but that my answer would not be reflected by the census.

Unfortunately having searched through several boxfiles of papers, I have been unable to find my 2001 reply, or else I would quote from it directly.

Having seen that the 2011 census was still phrasing the question in the same way, I wrote to Census Customer Services at the Office for National Statistics in February asking for guidance on how the census records non-binary gender. The relevant excerpt of my letter follows:

I wonder if you could give me some guidance as to how I should answer certain potentially ambiguous census questions and how the census will record certain types of information. I could not find any guidance at http://2011.census.gov.uk/

I notice there is no question referencing ‘gender’ only ‘sex’. Will there be any attempt to record the number of transgender or non-binary identifying individuals in the country? Does the census distinguish between sex and gender at all?

How do you define ‘sex’ and what criteria would define whether an individual should answer female or male? Is this a question wishing to record a person’s primary or secondary sexual characteristics, chromosomal sex (which most people have not been tested for), personal identity (more rightly called gender) or legal status (in which case if ones passport disagrees with ones birth certificate, which should one answer)?

How does the census record individuals who are neither female nor male due to being intersex, transgender or transsexual currently in the process of transitioning to a binary role or transitioned to a non-binary role?

I recently received a reply from Helen Bray of the ONS, which was forwarded on to me by Rosemary Byatt of the ONS’s Parliamentary and Legal Support department. The relevant excerpt follows:

The primary purpose of the census is to give accurate and authoritative count of the number of people in England and Wales and to provide a benchmark for annual mid-year population estimates for local areas. Apart from serving essential needs for national and local population statistics, information of sex, age and marital status is key for estimating demand for local authority services, such as facilities for the young and elderly. The data are fundamental to major statistical series allowing age- and sex- specific rates for morbidity, mortality, fertility, marriage and divorce to be calculated.

One of the criteria for including any question or response category in a census is that there must be a strong need for information to be collected. Consultation with census users on the content of the 2011 Census did not identify a requirement for options for non-gendered or transgender. Nor do international agencies such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe and Eurostat recommend the collection of such information in a mandatory population census. In addition, collection information on such a small population subgroup would raise confidentiality issues. There is also some concern that such an additional category might encourage some people to simply not reveal their male or female identity, and this could interfere with the demographic analysis we undertake.

You’ll note that this response gives no guidance on how gender variant individuals should respond to the question and instead implies that all people will have a ‘male or female identity’ which the census must not confuse.

You’ll also note that this response implies that those who don’t answer with their ‘sex’ (implying agender on non-gender identity) and those who answer both male and female (implying non-binary or bigender identity) will not be recorded in the statistics, due to the ‘confidentiality issues’ of which I was advised before the 2001 census.

If one was feeling cynical, one might suggest that the Office for National Statistics might not have any idea how much of a minority non-binary and transgender identified people are as they haven’t asked this question in previous censuses and surveys. One might also point to serious flaws in their reporting on sexual minorities in previous surveys.

As there is still a legal requirement to answer this question correctly (albeit one under which only 38 of the more than 1.5 million households who did not complete the 2001 census were prosecuted), I wrote back pressing the matter of how non-binary gender individuals such as myself should respond. Here is my letter in full:

Dear Helen Bray or whom this may concern,

Thank you for your reply to my previous email dated 1st of March explaining why no options other than male or female are provided for the question ‘What is your sex?’ and why no separate question for gender is included.

I am still however uncertain as to how I should complete this section of the census.

I have a non-binary gender identity, in that I am something other than the binary genders of female and male, man and woman. In addition to this I have a highly androgynous appearance so that I am treated as both or neither of the binary gender options as I go about my life. I am seen as non-binary gendered by my friends and family, I am open about my gender identity to all, including my employer. I transitioned to this state through the aid of the NHS, I am seen as neither sex by my medical professionals. I have lived this way for a decade.

I can say with absolute honesty that it would be inappropriate for me to give a single answer of ‘male’ or female’ for the question. I feel that the census should reflect the reality of my existence, rather than some arbitrary and inaccurate binary option. I do not consider the sex assigned to me by the state to be accurate, I have lived with both binary sexes on my passport at different times.

If I were to choose to leave the ‘What is your sex?’ question blank, in order to reflect that I feel myself to have no binary gender, how would this be reflected in the census statistics?

If I were to choose to answer the question by indicating that I am both female and male (as I am treated as both by different individuals and groups during my day to day life), how would this be reflected in the census statistics?

If I were to write in my own gender identity and/or gender presentation, such as ‘Other’ or ‘Androgynous’, would this be recorded? Would I be penalised for not fulfilling my legal obligation to complete the census correctly?

Before the 2001 census I made similar inquiries and was informed that gender variant people are too small a group to be recorded in the census and that smaller minorities are not reflected in the census statistics as they could be identified within their communities which could affect their safety. I was told then that if I left the ‘What is your sex?’ question blank, the census statistics would not reflect this fact. In effect you would arbitrarily assign me an incorrect gender, just as the person who forwarded your letter on to me did when they addressed me as ‘Mr Titman'(!).

Could you please confirm whether my understanding of the 2001 policy still reflects the policy in place for the 2011 census? Is there any way that my non-binary gendered life will be accurately reflected in the census statistics or will my gender effectively be erased?

Thanks again for your help answering my questions. As before, please be aware that I may share your response with other transgender, non-binary and gender variant people who have similar questions to my own.

I look forward to your reply,

Nat Titman.

I have not yet received a reply from the Office for National Statistics and I was planning to delay writing this article until I had one. However I recently read an article by a guest blogger at Shakesville explaining how they had been given verbal agreement over the telephone saying that respondants cannot be fined for ticking both ‘male’ and ‘female’ if this is the most accurate representation of their gender achievable using the layout given.

The blogger goes on to suggest that all non-binary gender identified people should tick both or write in a third option and that somebody somewhere will have to ‘work out how to take account of it in the statistics’. They also suggest writing to your MP about the status of non-binary gender in law and official statistics. Something I also recommend.

In light of that article and the discussion around it, I felt that I should publish this article early without a further response from the ONS. I think that what I have currently is enough to strongly imply that anyone who gives a non-binary answer to the question ‘What is your sex?’ will not be recorded accurately in the census statistics. I’ll update again once I hear back from the ONS, which will hopefully be before Census Day (Sunday the 27th of March 2011).

If you wish to contact the ONS yourself on this matter, you can email Census Customer Services at census.customerservices@ons.gsi.gov.uk

If you have received information regarding this matter from Census Customer Services or any other organisation or individual involved in the 2011 UK Census, please add your experiences in the comments.

Update: Having received some feedback from people claiming that the ONS are only interested in ‘biological sex’ and not any other aspect of gender, I felt I should update to say that that’s demonstrably not true. Transgender identified individuals including transsexuals in transition who have phoned the census helpline have been instructed to choose whichever ‘sex’ they feel best represents their current identity. See the comments at the Shakesville article for others confirming this is their experience.

The responses I received from the ONS indicate that the statistics gathered will be used for a variety of purposes that would relate to a number of different factors including legal status, ‘birth sex’, ‘hormonal sex’ and social role. By conflating all of these aspects into a single simplistic question of ‘sex’, the ONS is inherently reducing the accuracy of the data recorded.

Finally, if the ONS was really interested in biological sex, they would provide an option for intersex people who were born with indeterminate ‘non-binary genitalia’ and/or a ‘chromosomal sex’ other than the most common XX/XY configurations to indicate this. As the majority of intersex people live comfortably within binary roles and see their intersex status as a medical issue, I’d say that such a question would be an invasion of privacy.

Update 2: The online UK Census Guidance for Students actually spells out how trans* indivduals should complete question 2:

Transgender or transsexual: select the answer which you identify yourself as. You can select either ‘male’ or ‘female’, whichever you believe is correct, irrespective of the details recorded on your birth certificate. You do not need to have a Gender Recognition Certificate.

So that’s an official UK Census publication explicitly defining the question of ‘sex’ as concerned with recording gender identity and not ‘biological sex’. So why do those of us who identify outside of the gender binary not have an option on the form?

Update 3: Post-census follow up Freedom of Information request analysis article here.

14 thoughts on “United Kingdom Census 2011”

  1. My partner is a Trans woman who is not yet legally registered as female, nor had she had the surgery. What she was told was that she should fill in the form with the gender she identifies as.

    So based on that the census is going for social gender not physical, which means they’re being astoundingly short-sighted in the choices they provide.

    I’ll be very interested to see their latest reply.


  2. Hi, thanks for this, and for this whole website, my census form arrived today and I’ve been sat staring at it (forcibly reminded of the passport forms I’ve procrastinated filling in for nearly a year…) I think I’m probably going to cross it out and write genderqueer, but since it states that it’s read by computer it may just forcibly assign me a gender or ignore it altogether. still they’ll have to take notice if there’s enough of us…right?


    1. Unless I receive a further reply from the ONS advising me otherwise, I plan to tick both boxes and also write my gender identity in the space to the right of the question. I believe ticking both is most likely to be detected as an intentional action on a computer scanned form, missed questions are more ambiguous.

      As you’ll see in the Shakesville article, Census Customer Services are advising that no one will be fined for ticking both if that’s the most accurate way of recording their identity given the options given. You may even be phoned to confirm that’s what you meant to tick, which certainly sounds like something that’s likely to be recorded somewhere.

      However if ONS writes back advising me to do something else, I’ll certainly share this information in a follow up article. I’m hopeful I’ll get a clear answer on whether non-binary answers will be reflected in the census statistics in any way too.


  3. I’m so glad I managed to find some discussion on this here! It’s something I don’t really have anyone to talk about with IRL. I received my census a few days ago and I am really pissed. First of all about the ‘sex’ thing, and secondly because they still haven’t included a question on sexual orientation. The reasons for this were stated on a statistics.gov document I read but none of them were very good ones. They want to know who makes up the people of the UK, as long as they’re allowed to ignore queer people and non-binary people? I don’t get it at all.

    Unless there’s any reason not to that comes about, I’ll tick both male and female on the sex question.


  4. Yknow what pisses me off about this, all the other minority groups in the country are catered for. You have to declare your ethnicity, your age, your level of ability, so why the fuck is the trans community being left out? And I thought this was meant to be confidential? If my safety could be put at risk by stating that Im trans on a fucking census, why should I fill out any information at all? I mean, if theyre going to be making this information available to dangerous individuals, do I really want them having all my other information too? Bullshit responses, they just dont fucking care.


    1. Supposedly any ethnic or religious groups under a certain size are also omitted from the local statistics for confidentiality/safety reasons. Presumably they are reflected in the national level statistics, so this excuse for not asking about trans* status/identity at all is quite a poor one.

      An even more blatant omission is not asking questions about sexual orientation. They record numbers of civil partnerships and dissolved civil partnerships but they don’t want to know how many people might potentially form civil partnerships? Given the stated reasons for the census (demand for services etc), surely this is relevant information?

      Omitting sexuality and gender identity from the census is denying that these can be equally as important to people’s identity as their ethnicity, nationality and religion. It does make it look like they just don’t care. And when they do include the question of sexuality in other surveys, they word it so badly that it results in erasure: http://news.pinkpaper.com/NewsStory/3946/24/09/2010/gaydar-reject-ons-claim-that-just-one-per-cent-of-uk-population-is-gay.aspx


      1. I was quite surprised by the sexuality question being left out. Yknow, it seems almost shambolic to omit these things. The census’ sole purpose is to gather information on the residents of the UK, to get a picture of the groups of people living here, to see how our society has changed. Missing out huge chuncks of information like this makes it almost moot. Ok, 100 years ago, a sexuality question may have not been deemed necessary, but in 2011? Thats a fucking schoolboy error.


  5. Hi Nat, I would like to cite this blog entry in a university essay I am writing, would you mind if I do that? Also you mention a reply from the ONS that you received describing how the data would be used, is there any chance you could post or mail me that reply?


    P.S. In regards to your most recent blog entry, I started a campaign to have the binary option of M/F removed from bus passes in Brighton and was successful! You can read coverage in the uni paper here: http://www.thebadgeronline.co.uk/?p=3437


    1. Hi Kirsty,

      Feel free to cite any part of this blog.

      Everything relevant I’ve received from the ONS has been quoted in the original article. I unfortunately couldn’t find the 2001 letter I received.

      Thanks for the heads up about the bus pass campaign!



  6. Man and women are the only natural and normal sexes and gender is a word made up by stupid assholes whose only goal is to make people confused xDD


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