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Why this year’s census won’t ask questions about sexual orientation, diverse gender and sexual identities

Friday 23rd February 2018




This year’s census, on March 6, will not ask people about their sexual orientation. 

Nor will it give gender diverse people the option sharing their identity. 

And if you are intersex, there’s no box to tick for you (although there are options - so keep reading.) 

Statistics New Zealand says this is because the data collected by adding these questions would not be reliable. 

Consultation ahead of Census 2018 began in late 2014, and submissions on questions of sex, gender and sexual orientation were made by a range of stakeholders including the AIDS Foundation, Family Planning, Gay Men’s Sexual Health Research Group, Rainbow Youth, Ara Taiohi, Otago University, and the Southland District Council. 

In July last year, the final decision was released on the content of Census 2018 - including the decision to exclude questions about sexual orientation, diverse gender and sexual identities. 

Statistics Minister James Shaw says he wants this to change in the future, as the information could help influence some government decisions, like the size of the community potentially requiring gender reassignment surgery.


Here’s a breakdown of how the decisions were made not to include the questions, and why.


Census 2018 sex test questions.

Source: Stats NZ

After testing questions on sample groups in 2016 and 2017, it was found that the question “what sex are you” with a third “intersex” option was confusing to some people. 

Statistics New Zealand also found what they described as “a high number of facetious responses from those who had indicated third sex category.” 

Further testing found that though adding third sex option would not affect official data on the number of New Zealanders who were male or female, data on the population of intersex people would not be of good quality. 

Based on this, a decision was made to offer only “male” and “female” sex categories. 

However, a recommendation was made to advise intersex respondents to request paper form of the census, and mark both male and female boxes. 


Census 2018 gender test question.

Source: Stats NZ

Statistics New Zealand initially tested the question “What gender do you identify as?” with three options - male, female and gender diverse. 

They found that the question caused confusion among some people, particularly in relation to there also being a question about sex.

According to Stats NZ, initial testing indicated they would not be able to produce an estimate of the transgender population from this question: 

“Gender identity can change over time and be expressed in a number of ways and forms. It is difficult to create a question that captures all these aspects. Information collected from a census question on gender identity would not enable us to output any population estimates on the populations of interest.”

A decision was made not to include a question about gender identity in the 2018 Census. 


Census 2018 sexual orientation test question.

Source: Stats NZ

There’s no statistical standard for the concept of sexual orientation in New Zealand, but there’s a long standing desire to know more about the topic. 

A report on the final content of the census noted that stakeholders who made submissions relating to sexual orientation said the information could “better inform funding and policy decisions for these population groups, particularly in health.”  

Stats NZ tested the question “Which of the following options bests describes how you think of yourself?” with the options: “heterosexual or straight”, “gay or lesbian”, “bisexual” and “other. Please state:”

The question was tested in 2016, with high variation across two samples, and some negative feedback from respondents “indicating sensitivity to answering questions on this topic.” 

The question was canned. 


Stats NZ acknowledges that information on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex is important, so how will they get it? 

Stats NZ says it’s developing an alternative way to capture information on the intersex population from this year’s census. 

“At a minimum this will involve providing those who wish to identify as intersex with a paper form on which they can mark both ‘male’ and ‘female’.”

The General Social Survey - a survey conducted by Stats NZ that is separate to the census - will include a question on sexual orientation. 

Information on gender identity will not be gathered. 

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“I don't understand why the "reliability of the data" over this question is an issue when there is a question about religion. Religion being a highly unreliable thing to ask questions about and surely of less importance to the processes of our country than one's gender alignment.” — Maryanne Cathro

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Susan Strongman is an Auckland-based journalist at The Wireless. She is interested in social issues, human rights and people, but prefers to spend her spare time with her cats.
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