By Dr Laurence Cooley
Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham
In March 2021, people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland became the first in the world to be asked a question about sexual orientation in a national census (Scotland’s census having been delayed by a year). This was a historic moment, accompanied by the promise that the resulting statistics will help shape public policy. Moreover, when individual census forms from 2021 are eventually made public in 100 years, they will provide future historians insights into the lives of LGBT+ people today. A less appreciated historical aspect is the story of activism and campaigning that led up to the decision to include the sexual orientation question for the first time.
Plans to include a sexual orientation question in the England and Wales census are usually traced back to consultation in the mid-2000s about the proposed content of the 2011 census. This exercise identified strong ‘user need’ for better statistics on sexual orientation, but the Office for National Statistics was concerned about privacy issues and whether people would find a census question acceptable. Instead, the ONS set up its Sexual Identity Project in 2006, to consult with government departments and agencies, academics and civil society, including LGBT+ organisations, on how best to collect the data. This resulted in the development of a standard sexual orientation question, which has since been included in surveys and used to produce estimates of the size of the non-heterosexual population. However, demand remained for more robust whole-population data that only the census can provide, and the ONS eventually agreed to include a sexuality question in the 2021 exercise.
Using archive materials including LGBT+ magazines and newspapers and the papers of activist groups, as part of a British Academy/Leverhulme-funded research project, my research has revealed an earlier history of LGBT+ engagement with debates about the census, however.
The earliest engagement I’ve found comes from the novelist Margaret Drabble – a vice-president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality – writing in the magazine Lunch in October 1973. Drabble recalled becoming conscious of the fact that the census didn’t include provision for the recording of same-sex relationships when she was hosting a gay couple for dinner: “We were talking about the Census, and they expressed indignation that there was no official way in which they could describe their relationship on the form. […] At first I thought, how trivial, and then I began to realise that a succession of such trivialities could well prove extremely demoralising”.
Some further attention followed in 1981, but it was with the 1991 census that the lack of a sexual orientation question starting to attract significant criticism. Shortly before the census date, activist group OutRage! discussed at a general meeting an “illegally obtained census form”, with the minutes noting: “With its emphasis on marital status and no questions on sexuality, it appears grossly heterosexist.” The meeting discussed the possibility of members refusing to complete the census or drawing in a sexuality box on the form. Capital Gay reported the group stating that it was “offensive and insulting that the census gathers information about sex, age, disability and race but not about sexuality. This prejudice and bias suggests the Government believes that the sexual orientation of millions of Britons is unimportant and irrelevant for its planning priorities for the decade.”
OutRage! North East subsequently flew a protest banner from the Tyne Bridge, reading “Census ’91 – lesbians and gay men must count!”. The Pink Paper marked the approach of the census date with the headline “The invisible ten per cent”, reporting that “On the evening of Sunday 21 April, around ten per cent of the population will suddenly cease to exist. Lesbians and gay men will become invisible and their relationships will disappear. For one hour, the entire British population will be heterosexual…” The paper’s satirical ‘Hercules’ column advised: “It is, of course, a criminal offence to fill in the forms incorrectly. It doesn’t appear to be one to amend them with the ditty ‘Gays count; count gays’ or similar. Just an observation, you understand.”
The inclusion of an ethnicity question for the first time in 1991 inspired some of this attention. A reader’s letter published by The Pink Paper, for instance, argued that “ethnic minorities are being counted this time ‘to help assess the extent and nature of racial disadvantage’. What about the extent and nature of disadvantage which arises from being gay or lesbian in a society where our existence is barely acknowledged and we are denied basic human rights?” In many ways, these arguments anticipated those made in favour of the eventual inclusion of the sexual orientation question in 2021, which drew comparisons with the census’s ethnicity and religion questions. In its consultation response, for instance, Manchester-based LGBT Foundation pointed to the utility of data on Salford’s Orthodox Jewish population, arguing that similar information on sexual minorities would aid resource allocation and the targeting of projects and services.
There are potentially risks to relying on arguments highlighting the importance of census data for allocating resources and planning services, particularly if the question (which was optional to answer) results in an undercount of sexual minorities – a possibility anticipated by a Pink Paper editorial in 2004, which noted that “services might not be provided at all” in this scenario. As Kevin Guyan has recently highlighted, “If the percentage is lower than expected, census data might support calls to strip government funding provided to LGBTQ-specific services”. Debates about how this data should be interpreted will therefore likely form the next part of the history of the census’s sexuality question, when the initial results are released later this year.
This blog post is based on a British Academy LGBT+ History Month lunchtime talk, given on 10 February 2022.
Update: February 2023
The first results from the sexual orientation question were released in January 2023, showing that 3.2% of the population of England and Wales aged 16 and over answered that they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or an other sexual orientation. 89.4% identified as straight or heterosexual, while the remaining 7.5% did not answer the question. The ONS website now includes a mapping tool, allowing us to see for example that 8.61% of people in Edgbaston South & University identified as LGB+.