As Australia gears up for our largest peacetime operation – the National Census, to be undertaken in 2026, with a consultation process now underway – we need to learn from how other countries have included LGBTIQA+ communities in their data collection, according to Joe Ball, CEO of Switchboard Victoria.
Joe Ball writes:
On 6 January 2023, the UK’s Office for National Statistics released the 2021 Census data collected about the LGBTIQA+ population in England and Wales. The inclusion of sexuality and diverse genders in the UK Census is being heralded as a major step forward by LGBTIQA+ advocates, healthcare professionals and all those who are interested in data driven population planning.
For the clarification of readers, in the UK generally and in the UK Census specifically the acronym for diverse genders and sexuality is LGBT, they explicitly don’t include Intersex; Stonewall the largest charity providing services to our community in the UK uses LGBTQ+. The inclusion of intersex in advocacy and the acronym is predominantly an Australian only inclusion. This article does not provide an analysis on Intersex and the Australian Census; please refer to Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA) for this.
For us in Australia the UK Census helps support the case for the Australian 2026 Census to include questions on sexual orientation and reform the questions that relate to gender and parenting.
If the Federal Albanese Government makes this reform during their election term and are still in the driver’s seat to see it through in 2026, this will most likely make Australia the fifth country in the world to count LGBTIQA+ people in their Census.
Canada was the first country to collect and publish an LGBTI data set. The Canadian data set provided previously unknown but important data, including that LGBTIQA+ Canadians average personal income was “significantly lower than those of non-LGBTIQA+ people in Canada” (this is the acronym they use in Canada).
Canada pipped England and Wales at the post, who ran their national Census two months earlier in 2021 but took longer to release the data set, giving Canada the privilege of being able to proclaim to be the first. Aotearoa/New Zealand will be the fourth to ask LGBTIQA+ questions with their Census due in March this year.
With Canada, England, Wales and New Zealand all set to complete a Census collection this year, this provides an excellent opportunity for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to learn and excel from those who went before us. We can learn from mistakes and counter community concerns to deliver, not only the first of its kind in Australia, but the most accurate LGBTIQA+ data set possible.
Lessons for the Australian Bureau of Statistics
Arguably one of the areas of greatest concern for accuracy when it comes to the Census is under-counting people who identify as LGBTIQA+.
When we look at the UK Census and the methods of counting LGBTIQA+ people, in my opinion five major issues have caused an undercount – the first three that I list below are also identified by the Office of National Statistics (UK) in their own methodology report, which can be found here.
- The sexual orientation and gender identity questions were voluntary
- Write in answers were not included, so if people used other terms for sexuality and gender then what was provided, they were excluded from the count.
- Only people 16 years and older could answer the gender and sexuality questions
- There is a cultural context where people are scared to report because of historical or current discrimination in England and Wales
- Generalised fear of privacy and ongoing data breeches impact upon a marginalised community.
The above five points should be, if they are not already, key priorities for consideration for the ABS’s development of the proposed LGBTIQA+-inclusive 2026 Australian Census.
The issue of whether the questions are voluntary is difficult. It is entwined with the question of age reporting on sexuality. Why would we only count LGBTIQA+ people over the age of 16? Well, this is because at some point, it is moot to ask about a child’s sexuality. However, given that the question is voluntary, I think it should be left up to the person completing the form to decide.
Either way, given what we know about young people and their sexualities, if there was an age limit, I suggest making it 12 years old. If we don’t ask the question until people are 16, we lose the opportunity to obtain data to properly inform educational programs like safe schools, respectful relationships and services like headspace, youth centres and housing services.
It is predictable that the Census will undercount youth who are LGBTIQA+. With anyone younger than 25 more likely to live with a parent or guardian than those older than 25, their Census data will be most likely completed for them by their parent or guardian, who might decide to opt out of the voluntary LGBTIQA+ question for a range of reasons.
However, there is a new generation of parents who, like never before, are proud and supportive of their LGBTIQA+ children and would like the opportunity to record their child between the ages of 12-16 correctly and not have them defaulted to cisgendered and/or heterosexual.
Interestingly, the age limit does allow for the LGBTIQA+ questions to be compulsory for anyone over the age of 16 limit, yet in England and Wales they still made these questions voluntary for all.
There is a precedent from previous Census for voluntary or optional questions to be included in the interests of the overall Census integrity. For example, the Census in Australia has for many years now produced an abridged Census form for homeless people – this is called the “short form”. This is because it is well understood that in certain instances, like in the case of homeless rough sleepers, it can be very difficult to get through the full 60 questions.
There were also two optional questions that could be left unchecked on the digital form and you could still progress without answering them – they were: what is a person’s religion? and do you want your information kept for 99 years in the national archives of Australia?
Potential challenges to overcome
Moving forward in planning for the 2026 Census and plans to include LGBTIQA+ questions, the ABS will need to grapple with potential community and political concerns about sensitivity and stigma.
David Kalisch, the Australian statistician, the head of the ABS, in 2021 argued that the exclusion of LGBTIQA+ data collection in the last Census was partly due to community “sensitivity” about asking people what their sexuality is, with the implication that people will be offended.
In fact, the Census has always offended some people. One of the most controversial questions that causes pain and outrage every five years is the question asking how many live births a female has had; yet for data integrity around measuring fertility rates, it continues to be asked.
Under further questioning about this “sensitivity” issue, it was also explained that the overseeing Minister and Assistant Treasurer at the time, Michael Sukkar had, and I quote, “a preference” to not include sexuality questions.
It is likely that more conservative Australian politicians will have a preference for not including sexuality questions, as they did during the marriage equality vote. Sukkar had a preference to vote and campaign for “No” in the marriage equality postal survey and when it came to the Parliamentary vote for marriage equality, he walked out of the chamber with Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, George Christensen, and Barnaby Joyce so as to be counted as ‘abstained’.
This was in contrast to Sukkar’s electorate’s preference – which he promised to support in the postal survey. The seat of Deakin recorded a higher than the national average ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality – 65.7 percent compared to the national average of 61.6 percent.
I believe that the decision for the England and Wales Census LGBTIQA+ questions to be for people 16 years and older and to be voluntary was most likely also a preference of the conservative UK government.
Going forward the ABS will need to grapple with the above issues – luckily, they can learn from their overseas colleagues.
Unique local issues
However, there are unique issues to the Australian Census that require local inquiry and attention. One is that on the Australian Census if you state your sex or gender as male, you are not asked if you’ve had a live birth. This means the Census misses the count of the small but significant and important number of trans men who have given birth.
The second issue is in the ancestry question it asks for your mother and father; this could be changed to parent 1 and parent 2 to include Rainbow Families.
Both questions must be fixed to reflect the modern Australia we all live in.
Finally, and perhaps the overall and most urgent underlying issue for the ABS as it prepares to count LGBTIQA+ people in the next Census is that it must invest in community consultation and engagement.
For such a significant change in the Census, there needs to be a Director in the National Census Office working with a multi-disciplinary team of LGBTQA+ community leaders and data champions to overcome all of the above challenges and work with a community that is extremely sceptical and angry at the ABS. The last time many in our community heard from the ABS was when they ran the unwanted, unloved and unwarranted Australian Marriage Law Survey.
This was a survey that had no purpose but to engage the community in a divisive debate and all because successive Labor and then Liberal governments refused to legislate on the issue, making us – embarrassingly – the 23rd country to legalise same sex marriage.
Let’s hope we will be far higher up the list this time in counting LGBTIQA+ people in the Census.
The National Census comes every five years, it is the largest peacetime operation in our nation – the planning for the 2026 Census started even before the 2021 one was completed.
With the promised support of the Albanese Government and a dedicated and empowered internal LGBTIQA+ data collection team in the Census National Office, we can make the 18th Australia Census of Population and Housing a Census that we can all be proud of, recognising the many benefits this will bring for all our communities.
About the author and Switchboard
Joe Ball is CEO of Switchboard Victoria, a community-based not for profit organisation that provides a peer-driven support service for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse, intersex, queer, asexual (LGBTIQA+) communities and their allies, friends, support workers and families.
Some of the services they provide include seven-day-a-week LGBTIQA+ helplines – Qlife run in partnership with other state-based services, and Rainbow Door which is a Victorian LGBTIQA+ helpline for the prevention of suicide, family violence and to support mental health and wellbeing.
Switchboard also runs the only dedicated national LGBTIQA+ suicide prevention program.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on LGBTIQA+ health matters