Will the 2021 Census finally provide a representative picture of the UK LGBT+ population?

Photo by Ian Taylor via Unsplash

For the first time, a question about sexual orientation was asked on the UK 2021 Census, the result of years of campaigning from LGBT+ organisations who hope that more representative statistics on the UK LGBT+ population will improve access to services and funding. 

The 2021 Census, carried out on the night of March 21, was the first to ask a question regarding sexual orientation, providing a more accurate picture of the LGBT+ population in the UK than has ever existed before. 

“The 2021 Census will be a historic moment for LGBT+ communities,” says Nancy Kelley, Chief Executive of the charity Stonewall. “Collecting this vital data will ensure researchers, policymakers, service providers, and community organisations are able to understand the needs of LGBT+ people.”

The UK Census is carried out every 10 years, with the last occurring on March 27, 2011. It is a survey which attempts to gain a representative picture of every person and household across the UK, asking questions regarding topics such as language, religion, age and ethnicity. These statistics can be used to inform decisions on planning and funding public services.  

In England & Wales, the 2021 Census included two non-compulsory questions on sexual orientation and on gender identity, in Northern Ireland there was one non-compulsory question on sexual orientation. The Scottish census, which has been postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic, will contain one non-compulsory question on sexual orientation and one regarding transgender identities.

While previous surveys have attempted to compile statistics about the UK LGBT+ population, the census provides an opportunity for a more representative picture of the UK population on a local as well as national level. 

“The census is kind of the gold standard because it theoretically represents the entire population,” says Dr Laurence Cooley, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham. 

As part of a research project, Queering the Census, Dr Cooley has analysed the different arguments made for including a question on sexuality in the 2021 Census: “The majority tended to focus on needing statistics in order to demonstrate particular needs or particular disadvantages or inequality, and you can then presume that data can be used to make arguments for increased funding.”  

It is difficult to know exactly how the data on the LGBT+ population will be used, as it has never existed before on such a scale. The fact that the data can be broken down to such a local level may benefit smaller LGBT+ organisations who can use the statistics to push for funding from councils or local authorities.

However, there is a concern that low response rates to this question will lead to a significant undercount in the true numbers of the LGBT+ population. An ONS census test across England & Wales in 2017 found that a larger percentage of people chose not to answer the proposed sexual orientation question than ticked the boxes for ‘gay and lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘other’.

“The people who don’t answer is going to be a very diverse group, and they’re going to span all the categories that the question is asking about, including probably lots of heterosexual people,” says Dr Cooley. 

One issue which may lead to a lower number of respondents to the sexual orientation question is the problem of privacy within the household. As the census is generally filled out as a household, many closeted LGBT+ people may feel pressure not to answer the question. 

“I really don’t want to lie and say I’m straight at the age of 24, but I’m not interested in having that conversation now when I’m living in their house,” says Sarah*, who moved back in with her parents at the beginning of the pandemic when her university closed. 

While the numbers of young people moving back to their parent’s house has been growing steadily for several years, it appears to have accelerated due to the social and financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A Compare the Market poll of 2000 young people in the UK aged 18-34 found that 43% either had or were considering moving back with their parents due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I do think its a bad coincidence that a lot of people are moving back in with their parents at the same time as they are adding this question,” added Sarah. 

The ONS added an option for individuals to request a private census form online which will override the answers from the household survey without any other members of the household being notified. This option may have helped with the issue of privacy for some individuals. “But people have to be aware of that possibility to be able to take it,” says Dr Cooley. 

The LGBT Foundation has launched their #ProudToBeCounted campaign, which encourages LGBT+ people to respond to the 2021 Census. The campaign explains why this data is important, what it could be used for, and provides support for responding to the gender and sexuality questions. 

*Name changed to protect anonymity

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