Render Unto Caesar – The Census Dilemma

I can still picture the first census that I filled in, a decade ago. I was in the early stages of transition and identified strongly as male. I sat in the kitchen of the tiny student flat that I shared with two others, my pen hovering over the boxes. M…F…M…F… At first I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to tick. Then, with a sinking feeling, I realised that the word ‘sex’ was probably used very intentionally… But could I really tick F with a clear conscience? And why should I?

This issue, which is an issue not only of dysphoria, emotion and identity but also of integrity, good data, and the essential governance skill of managing diversity well. This year, the census gender/sex dilemma has hit the mainstream media and it’s fair to say that our leaders have missed the mark, not only for trans people, but for all of us. The reason that the question has been raised is because of confusing government guidance, which was challenged by an anti-trans campaigning group. However, as a conversation with a trans person awaiting their GRC this morning reminded me, the question of how data about sex and gender effects women and trans people alike, and a more nuanced form could have easily resolved the difficulties and captured data sensitively and accurately.

“It’s a tension because I want to provide accurate data but also not compromise my integrity.”


You might wonder whether or not this is a real issue. It’s just a tick box on a form, surely? It doesn’t really matter, does it? The thing is that it really does matter, and it is a whole lot more than just a tick box on a form. Census data is used by the government to plan and run public services. As such, it is essential that census data accurately reflects the demographic make-up of the UK. Any room for error impacts the way in which identity groups that are already marginalised are served by our government. This is a massive social justice issue.

Both trans and cis people need this data to accurately reflect a) sex and b) gender so that services are funded, and run, appropriately for all. Just one reason that this really matters is the level of healthcare inequality that trans people experience, which is effected by both sex and gender. The current system, and the way in which it inter-relates with the Gender Recognition Act also means that the way in which findings represent the number of trans people in the U.K. will be inaccurate.

This also matters for psychosocial and spiritual reasons, though. There is something extremely damaging in being forced to label oneself inaccurately. Trans people already experience significant distress in relation to misgendering in our daily lives, exacerbating the difficulties that form filling involves for many. For the trans person who cares deeply about spiritual integrity and authenticity, this becomes even more problematic.

Jesus famously instructed his disciples to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The problem is that identities crosses psycho-social-spiritual-legal boundaries. Identities are deeply personal and spiritual matters which, nevertheless, are lived out in the social sphere and effect – and are effected by – legal and governmental decisions. Many feel deeply called to respond to God authentically by refusing to hide or lie about our identities. And yet, we are provided with a governmental form on which we are legally required to lie.

There is no easy answer or solution. What we can do is consider a) What we are legally required to do this time, b) how we might pastorally reconcile this tension, c) what sort of changes should we be campaigning for in advance of the next census.

“The last thing I want is an F straight after my name – because that isn’t accurate.”


This Census – What to Do?

This is an attempt to straight-forwardly describe how trans people are expected to answer sex and gender questions in the current census. It it not intended to imply agreement with this reality, which leaves me, and many others, very frustrated! Some people may choose to answer more authentically. I can not, and will not, tell you what box to tick. All I can tell you is what the guidance suggests is ‘expected’.

a. The Sex Question

  • If you do not have a GRC, you are expected to tick the box which aligns with your sex assigned at birth.
  • If you do have a GRC, you are expected to tick the box which aligns with your GRC/revised birth certificate/gender.

b. The Gender Identity Question

  • This question comes later in the form and is voluntary.
  • Some trans people will wish to indicate their trans identities here, others will not.
  • This decision is deeply personal, and there is no right or wrong answer.
  • This does, however, create a statistical difficulty.

Reconciling – How to Move Forward?

For those required to tick the box, very near the start of the census, that misgenders them, there will be a level of emotional pain involved. It may be helpful to spend some time engaged in an activity that affirms your sense of self, or to have a chat with someone who sees you as you are. It may also be helpful to spend some time in prayer. Here’s a simple one that might help. Consider leaving silence for reflection between each line.

God, Creator, Created, Creative…

I know that you see me as I am.

You feel my frustration with the inauthenticity required by this flawed system.

Help me to let go.

Help me to move forward.

Help me to shape change.

Here I am, you have called me by name, I am enough.


Next Time – Campaigning for Change

The fundamental problem, here, is that the results of this census will not accurately represent a) gender b) sex and c) trans identity. This will contribute to a continuation of significant social justice issues for all sorts of people, and may also be used to downplay the number of trans people in the UK. This is simply not good enough. There is an urgency to this issue that means we cannot simply wait for the next census. Those with the ability/power/networks to commission or work towards more nuanced statistical data should do so as soon as possible. It is important that the census is fair and accurate for everyone. At present, this is presented as a binary debate as to whether the form should include sex or gender. The solution must complexify this polemic and prioritise accuracy.

There is also, however, a real need to challenge those designing the census to do better next time. Potential improvements include moving the sex question to later in the form and including separate questions about sex, gender, and trans identities, although a nuanced and evidence based approach is essential, and will take time and thought to develop. Further, this difficulty has shown the real flaws in the GRA and highlighted, yet again, the need for urgent reform.

If filling in the census is difficult for you this year, please prioritise your self-care. I am here for you, if you need to talk. If filling in the census is easy for you, consider working alongside trans and non-binary people to enable change. Trans stats matter. We must do better.

2 thoughts on “Render Unto Caesar – The Census Dilemma

  1. The guidance was not challenged by a women’s rights group. It was challenged by an anti-trans campaign group which uses falsehoods and half-truths to oppose trans rights. It is important to state the difference, and to share evidence that that group does little or nothing for women’s rights, and a great deal to oppose equality and decent treatment for trans people, especially trans women.

    On the census, I have a GRC, but even if I had not I would put the sex on my passport, which was F before I got the GRC. I do not care what that judge said. The ONS is the expert at getting accurate data.

    In 1991 I put M. That was before I had decided to transition. I was in deep denial.

    I can’t remember what I ticked in 2001. Then, I had decided to transition but was still presenting male at work. It was agony. Now, I am quite clear I would put F. No-one has a right to demand that I put anything else, even though the ONS guidance as it was would have required me to put M.

    Non-binary people should be entitled to leave both M and F blank.

    The risk of this court action, probably the intention of the anti-trans campaign group and their wealthy funders, was to reduce trans people’s trust in the census, and corrupt the data on gender identity in the later question. I hope trans people will answer that question accurately. The court action may result in cis people mocking the question, but I hope what they put will be clearly mockery and can be discounted. No-one thinks “Jedi knight” is an actual religion.

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