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The question of gender

PUBLISHED: 07:04 11 October 2017

Dr BJ Epstein, UEA

Dr BJ Epstein, UEA


Will the 2021 UK census make gender definition an optional question? East Anglian academics argue it is the future

Germaine Greer in 2013. The writer and academic has spoken out about the suggestion to make the gender question optional at the next census. Picture: RODNEY SMITH Germaine Greer in 2013. The writer and academic has spoken out about the suggestion to make the gender question optional at the next census. Picture: RODNEY SMITH

How important is a person’s gender?

As a woman born in the mid-20th century, my sex has dominated my entire life; from my education, to my career choices to my status in society. But however aggrieved I feel about inequalities, I have never felt uncomfortable when being asked to declare I am female on official forms.

I read that the “male/female” question in the next census (due in 2021) could be made voluntary after claims it discriminates against transgender people. The “tentative” recommendation has been made in an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on gender identity.

According to the Sunday Times, such a move would make the UK one of the first countries in the world not to require its citizens to tell officials what sex they are. Research found that the male/female question was “considered to be irrelevant, unacceptable and intrusive, particularly to trans participants, due to asking about sex rather than gender”.

The 2011 Census form. Picture SIMON FINLAY The 2011 Census form. Picture SIMON FINLAY

An ONS spokesman said the document is an update on research “on potentially collecting information on gender identity as well data on sex.”

“It does not contain proposed census questions and suggests further research is required,” he said in a statement.

There are many ways to alienate people.

The first time I encountered a difference in approach to sex/gender was when my dad (in his 80s) was in hospital and, before being discharged, was handed a form to complete. It remains the strangest customer appreciation survey I have ever seen. For a start, it asked if he would recommend his ward to other patients. It gave him wide choices of gender and sexuality to choose from. He ticked male for the first but passed on the other one.

Will the next census make identifying sex an optional question? Picture: SIMON FINLAY Will the next census make identifying sex an optional question? Picture: SIMON FINLAY

For those who have been brought up in the different world; a world at war, it must be disconcerting to find that everything you thought you knew for sure isn’t set in stone at all.

I identify as a woman but while I don’t have a full grasp of current gender politics I hope I respect other people irrespective of gender identity, race and religion. It’s the least we can do.

Should the next census show more sensitivity?

Outspoken academic, feminist and writer Germaine Greer, who lives near Saffron Walden, is unimpressed by the prospect. She told The Times that women are “losing out everywhere”.

Dr Tori Cann, UEA Dr Tori Cann, UEA

“I’m sick and tired of this. We keep arguing that women have won everything they need to win. They haven’t even won the right to exist.”

At the University of East Anglia Dr BJ Epstein is senior lecturer in literature and public engagement, and writes extensively on topics around gender and sexuality. Dr Tori Cann lectures in humanities and has an outreach interest in feminism and the politics of identity. They have welcomed the ONS’ approach.

BJ Epstein says the numbers of people who might opt out of the male/female census question if it was voluntary would be too small to significantly skew the figures.

“While people have become really aware of trans issues, it is still a small number in the population... it would be miniscule.”

“I think that within a couple of generations, more and more people will feel they’re not male or female and our perceptions of gender will change over the generations.”

“With regard to the census, I think something quite open-ended could be asked such as, ‘How do you define your gender?’”

Dr Epstein feels Germaine Greer is overly concerned. “I don’t think we are saying the fight for women’s rights is over. We need to know, for example, how many CEOs are women and we’re not going to lose sight of that information.

“It is the individual’s right to identify as they wish.”

Tori Cann welcomes both the focus on gender and the proposed change in the approach to gender on the census. “It’s about giving a voice to people who have been invisible for millennia.”

“There are people who prefer not to identify as male or female. They take a more fluid gender identity and might wish to re-identify.”

It is for people who are comfortable identifying as male or female to be the allies of those who are not, said Dr Cann.

“I think there will be a question about gender on the census. Hopefully they will have figured out a way to do that by 2021.”

• The census and gender politics − the story so far...

In 1911, a number of women took action to advance the cause of universal suffrage by deliberately absenting themselves from the census. They spent the night away from their homes to avoid being counted.

One such group of suffragettes gathered in the Old Museum Rooms in Ipswich on Census night, April 2, 1911 where they passed the time singing and telling ghost stories.

It was a gesture that did not undermine the results of the census (some of the women’s families wrote their names on the forms even though they were elsewhere) but it effectively highlight the cause of votes for women.

The census has counted us once a decade since 1801 and it has become an important resource to those who research family history.

Roll forward a century and there could be much more information about ancestry... although, by then, the 100-year-old remnants of Facebook may also be a useful pool of source material.

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