ONS to calculate the size of Britain’s GLB population. But apparently not the number of trans people.

December 7, 2008

ONS logoAfter last week’s Queen’s Speech announcing the new Equality Bill, the Office for National Statistics looks set to be taking seriously – if idiosyncratically – the duty on public bodies to consider how their spending decisions, employment practices, and service delivery can affect people according to their race, disability, or gender to include sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age, and religion or belief.

The ONS says that from January, questionnaires will include new questions which, it hopes, will meet equality laws and find out if people from minority groups are discriminated against.

Without reliable statistics on how many lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people are in a specific area, it could be difficult for some public bodies to carry out their new duties effectively.

According to the Daily Telegraph:

People answering questionnaires about their employment status, their living costs and how much they drink or smoke will also be asked whether they are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.

The enigmatic category “other” is also being included to cater for the “very small” number of people who say they do not fit into the first three groups.

Future studies could also ask Britons if they have had sex swaps or are “undergoing the process of gender reassignment”.

My first reaction is that, although this could be a useful tool in its own right, the question of privacy – of the individual respondent as well as the data collected – is crucial to the success of the proposal. Given the wholesale loss of data by various government departments in recent times, to say I have some reservations would be a bit of an understatement. However, the ONS says that trial groups have been happy to answer the highly personal questions about their sexuality, and says their privacy will be preserved.

Karen Dunnell, the National Statistician, said: “Better measurement of equality is essential if we are properly to analyse, understand and address inequalities in society.”

“Testing has shown that the vast majority of people are willing and able to answer the question.”

“ONS puts great emphasis on maintaining confidentiality of data. In this case, special show cards are used to ensure that even someone in the same room as the respondent at the time of the interview cannot know how they have answered.”

Respondents will be asked about their sexuality in surveys of population, labour force, housing, living costs, general lifestyle and opinions. Those taking part will be asked to choose from the categories Heterosexual/straight, Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual and Other, although they will also be allowed to decline to answer.

The ONS said:

“The category ‘other’ has been included as testing has shown that there is a very small group of people who find that the answer categories provided do not describe themselves and that they would prefer to use another term.”

To me, this seems a little inadequate, to be honest. I accept that there may be a need to collate these data but I do think that it might be preferable to let people self-identify, instead of trying to fit us all into such specific and apparently narrow categories. Are we going to be permitted to tick more than one of these four checkboxes?

And, as you might expect, the ONS seems intent on ignoring the existence of trans people, as shown by the apparent failure to include any questions about gender identity in addition to the attention it’s paying to sexual orientation.

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