Census day

Today is census day – 21st March 2021.

A census like this has been taken—to varying levels of detail—for over 200 years in the UK. What started as a simple head count in 1801 has turned into a detailed survey of everyone in the country, their demographic details, their jobs, their habits… and for the first time this year, their gender and sexuality.

This is the fourth census I’ll appear in – popping up as a baby in the West Midlands in 1991, a high-schooler in 2001, a Masters student at Oxford in 2011, and now a designer in Liverpool in 2021.

It’s frightening how quickly a life goes past, when it’s compressed into ten year snapshots.

I feel a bit like one of those characters in A House Through Time, popping up as a name, a date, and a profession, in some dusty old tabulation. (Although, of course, when this happens on the show, it’s through tax records, housing records, births, deaths, and marriages, rather than the census, because individual census records aren’t published.)

But filling in the census this year felt different.

As I reached the question about sexuality, I suddenly felt a swirl of emotions. I tried to put my finger on them.

Pride? Yes, pride. The first time this data has even been collected in a census, and another step towards LGBT+ representation in government decision-making that actually reflects the number of LGBT+ people in the country. Of which I’m one. Pride. Yes. But what else?

Suspicion? Fear? Yes, so it seems. In a year where the government made no attempt to hide its disdain for civil liberties and human rights, I couldn’t shake the fear that my response could eventually be used against me. Even if I trusted the government of today (which I don’t), who’s to say my data’s safe from any future governments with an even less constructive attitude towards LGBT+ people?

You don’t have to look far to find examples of census data being used to persecute minorities. Even in a civilised country like the US, the Census Bureau was found to have handed over data on Japanese Americans to the Secret Service in the 1940s, and data on Arab Americans to Homeland Security in 2002. It’s not so long ago that homosexuality was effectively illegal in the UK. It’s not inconceivable that it could become so again.

Digging deeper, I find another pair of emotions, tied up in each other – shame, and anger.

There’s a quote I can’t quite remember, but it goes something along the lines of “being gay is knowing how it feels to come out again and again and again.” We live in a society that assumes heterosexuality and enforces gender norms from the moment you’re born. Even when your immediate social circle is supportive and open-minded, you’re fighting against literally centuries of cultural baggage, of behaviours and institutions that deny your right to exist.

I mean, really, I’ve got it easy. A white, straight-passing, cis-gendered male. I don’t need to come out again and again if I don’t want to. And sometimes, when people make a throwaway comment about girlfriends or marriage or kids, it’s easier just not to bother.

But at the same time, I feel anger that I even have to think like this. I feel anger that, even though I can quietly dodge attention in the street, I have friends who—because of their race, or their gender presentation—cross that battlefield every day, who face outright abuse, for absolutely no reason. And I feel anger that we’re subject to a government that actively defends the evil, manipulative bastards who perpetrate that abuse.

This very census, in fact, is not immune to these pressures. After years of research and testing for the new gender and sexuality questions, ONS was forced to re-word the guidance below the question “what is your sex?” to remove the suggestion that you might find your sex defined on your passport.

Why? Because the sex on your passport is self-defined and anti-trans pressure groups argued this constitutes “self-identification through the back door.” I mean, heaven forbid somebody who defines as a woman should be counted as a women! Clearly utter madness.

They took the case to the High Court, and won – not that trans people are going to pay any attention.

Despite all this, however, there’s one final emotion that came to mind, and that’s Hope. The realisation that if this broken society is ever going to change, it’s through small, incremental pushes like this. I have hope that in my lifetime, I’ll see a census where nobody bats an eyelid at these questions about gender and sexuality, just as we no longer question women having the vote, or slavery being illegal.

And in the short term, I have hope that the data from this year’s census, and the ONS’s careful support for people responding entirely privately from their families, will result in nationwide data that gives a better picture than ever of the scale and demographics of the LGBT+ community in the UK.

This is the first time I’ll appear in a census—in fact, any government dataset, to my knowledge–as a gay man. The same will be true for hundreds of thousands of other people like me. That’s exciting.

Seven years after I started this blog, I’m again left to ask, what’s in a checkbox? Quite a lot, it seems.