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Opinion

It’s not right for a census to ignore people’s biological sex at birth simply to appease trans people like me

The usually dull once-a-decade government counting exercise is at the centre of a row, as members of the gender-identity lobby seek to declare themselves to be whatever they choose. But that would be a missed opportunity for us.

Censuses should be mundane affairs: periodic exercises to help inform future planning. England and Wales will next be enumerated on March 21. But less than six weeks out, rumours are circulating that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) – which administers the census – is still tied up in knots over question three: sex.

It used to be simple: male or female. We knew what we were and we ticked the appropriate box. But the gender-identity lobby has been working hard to obfuscate the issue by mangling sex with gender identity. Which has left the ONS with a dilemma: does it risk upsetting prickly transgender people or collect objective data?

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Let me be clear: I am transsexual, but I need the government to collect reliable data. How else will it know how much to invest in services for transgender people or monitor their experience across England and Wales? Furthermore, like everyone else, we have a biological sex, and the government needs to know it. Male and female transgender people have different needs and experiences from each other, and we are certainly not special in that respect. 

But many transgender campaigners see the world differently. To them, men and women are not distinguished by their biology, but their psychology – in essence, how they feel about themselves. To them, sex – which is a material reality – must give way to gender identity. Despite what governments have been led to believe, gender identity cannot even be defined without recourse to circular reasoning and reference to sexist stereotypes. However, as author JK Rowling discovered last year, anyone who disagrees faces condemnation as a bigot and public shaming for their ‘transphobia’.

The resulting furore has raged for several years now, and the statisticians at the ONS have now found themselves in the eye of the storm. But however politically charged the environment, they still need data, and they need to be clear about it. Question three asks, “What is your sex: female or male?” Without further instructions as to how to respond, the answer one chooses can presumably be whichever of the two one wishes.

Three weeks ago, Sir Ian Diamond, the Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority, suggested that the required answer should be “very simply, your legal sex”, but declined to define what he meant by “legal sex”. Was that what was on one’s birth certificate, or in one’s passport? Because, for transgender people, they may not be the same.

Earlier this week, campaigning group Fair Play for Women reported that, “a government source has now confirmed that the ONS will be guiding people to answer according to what’s on ‘legal documents … such as a passport’.”

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The lack of clarity from the government is alarming. Alice Sullivan, a professor of Sociology at University College London, told me that, “It is extraordinary that the guidance for the sex question is not settled, when the census date is just over a month away. This situation reflects ONS’s lack of timely engagement with quantitative data experts.”

Seemingly, despite Sir Ian’s statement, gender identity is still on the table. Yesterday, Professor Sullivan was one of several UK academics who wrote to the Times to express their concern. As they pointed out, “Two of the UK’s most senior governmental statisticians have signalled their intent to abandon the principle of collecting data on biological sex in favour of data on subjectively defined gender identity.”

Whatever they want, they need to tell us, and not leave it buried in ‘guidance’. Instructions are needed alongside question three. My own view is the census should ask for ‘biological sex as registered at birth’, whatever the howls of protest that might ensue about identities being invalidated. The statisticians need objective evidence, not subjective feelings. Besides, since when has the purpose of the census been to validate anyone’s identity? 

No doubt some trans people will ignore whatever they are told and write what they think best fits their own scenario, but they must not be allowed to feign ignorance of what was expected.

It’s not that gender identity is being ignored. I applaud the decision by the ONS to ask a separate question on gender identity later in the census. It’s optional, but question 27 gives everyone the opportunity to state whether or not the gender they identify with is the same as their “sex registered at birth.” No longer will the government need to guess the numbers of trans people in the country, and bulk data will be available to describe our experience in education, health, employment and housing. But this will be worth much less if the vaguery surrounding question three means we can’t be sure of anyone’s “sex registered at birth” in any case.

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My census return will be clear. Question three: my sex is male – legally as well as biologically, since I have never applied for a gender recognition certificate – but I have gone through a social and medical transition, so I will declare my transgender status in my answer to question 27. That’s not denying my existence; it’s stating the truth.

But in doing so my data will be separated from trans women who think they are female and conflated with that of trans men who think they are male. That would be unhelpful in the extreme. My needs are the same as other trans women’s and distinct from trans men’s. What could be useful data may end up in a random scatter and be a missed opportunity for the transgender community to understand itself.

For many people, of course, this will be a non-issue. To them, sex is sex, and gender identity can be aligned with sex or ignored. They may well wonder what all the fuss is about. But other vulnerable groups need reliable data on sex and gender.

Lesbians – who comprise less than two percent of women – may find themselves outnumbered in their own category by female-attracted trans women who have decided they are lesbian as well as female. Worse, there would be no way of disaggregating them from lesbians.

Women in general need to protect their data from being skewed by that of trans women. For example, males earn more than females, and there is no reason to believe trans women are any different to other males in that regard. If the gender [sic] pay gap appears to decrease, we might assume that women are earning more, but the effect could equally have been caused by well-paid men who are identifying as trans women in midlife. 

If we allow the census data to be mangled to protect feelings, we will not be able to rely on it when we need it. Monitoring the pay gap is just one example. In the last census, a decade ago, trans people answered the sex question as best they could, because nobody told them otherwise. But the numbers are larger now and the impact will be greater. Feelings are important, but – on the census form as well as in life – what matters is the truth.

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