Trans identity becomes an issue in Britain’s census The Economist 16.02.21
The original article is here.
EVERY CENSUS since 1841, Britons have been asked what sex they are. For a couple of centuries that was not a controversial question. Now it is.
In the most recent census in 2011, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which carries it out, included guidance with that question saying that it could be answered according to self-identified gender identity. At the time, few people identified as trans, the guidance was available only online and most respondents filled in paper forms, so it was unlikely to have made much difference. This time, it says it can be answered according to what it says on any official document, rather than according to sex recorded at birth. Most such documents can be changed at will. Now trans identification is much more common and, because of covid and greater internet penetration, three-quarters of people are expected to respond online. The guidance will be just a click away.
The ONS has vacillated over whether to keep that guidance. In late January its boss, Sir Ian Diamond, suggested it would not, saying “legal sex” would be recorded. This matches sex “recorded at birth” except for around 5,000 trans people who have gone through a formal process to change their birth certificates. But it decided to stick with self-ID, albeit guiding people to consider what it says on their identity documents, because, it says, trans people resented being asked their sex and it worried that some might refuse to fill in the form (though it is compulsory).
Trans activists argue that they have a right to be recorded as being of the sex of their choice, but some social scientists are not happy. Nobody knows what percentage of the population identifies as trans, but since younger people, especially natal females, are more likely to be trans, there are probably clusters in liberal enclaves such as university towns. In these subgroups, the guidance may have an impact on the reliability of data.
Data on sex are used to predict fertility and life expectancy, and to plan all sorts of public services, including maternity provision, school places, housing, health and old-age care. Many diseases are more severe for one sex than the other—men are more likely to die from covid-19, for example, but women spend more years in poor health at the end of their lives. Academics use historic census data on sex to study everything from social mobility to correlates of health, and how they change over time.
“Sex is a massive predictor of every dimension of social life,” says Alice Sullivan, a social scientist at University College London. “There are huge gaps between the sexes when it comes to pay, education, crime, religion and social attitudes.” When concerns about the guidance first emerged in 2019, she organised an open letter of protest to the ONS by 80 eminent users of census data.
Some women’s groups also oppose the guidance on the ground that any blurring of the meaning of sex is bound to harm women. The only way to tell whether sex discrimination is happening, they argue, is to have robust numbers.
And the guidance may also undermine the attempt in the census to find out just how many trans people there are in Britain. A voluntary question asks whether each adult respondent’s self-declared gender identity differs from their sex. If trans people respond to the sex question with their self-identified sex, they may then record their gender identity as matching their sex, thus leading them to be undercounted.
Several women’s groups are considering what to do to draw attention to the loss of robust data about sex. One, Fair Play For Women, is seeking an emergency judicial review, arguing that the ONS is neglecting its legal responsibility to collect robust data about protected characteristics. About a dozen, some politically affiliated and some non-partisan, have joined forces to try to get supporters to demand a paper form, so they can post it back with a letter of protest. Any blurring of the meaning of sex is bound to harm women, they claim. The only way to tell whether sex discrimination is happening is to have robust numbers.