Comment: Making Census of gender identity

For the first time, the Australian Census will offer an "other" option to gender. But there are security concerns for the trans and gender diverse population, writes Sally Goldner.

The news that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is recognising more than two options regarding gender in the upcoming Census is a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of respect, inclusion and recognising what has always been the reality regarding gender identity.

Two research pieces, being From Blues to Rainbows and Curtin University’s The First Australian Trans Mental Health Study, found that up to a third of the trans and gender diverse (TGD) population, or nearly 700,000 Australians, could identify as other than male or female. This may come as a surprise to some people. When we consider cultures and groups from all over the world, including our own original inhabitants, have always recognised more than two genders these numbers simply reflects reality. Sadly, uninformed attitudes have led to many TGD people concluding that it was highly unsafe to disclose, to any degree, anything regarding their true sense of self.

Today, as gender issues are being discussed more broadly and deeply and there is some increase in positivity towards TGD people, many people feel safer to identity as they truly need to rather than being pushed into a limited and limiting box that simply isn’t right for them. Given this pattern will only increase and that a major aim of the Census is to assist in planning for the future, it makes perfect sense to have a more respectful and inclusive range of options.

While the reforms are a great forward step, it is fair to state there is room for improvement in that the online form requires extra steps which could be considered unequal compared to others who don’t need to take those steps. I am unclear as to why a box labelled “Other (please specify)”, and with the ability to write in free-form what is needed, couldn’t be included in the forms. We would urge this be remedied in time for the 2021 Census.

TGD people are also aware of general privacy issues and share concerns about name retention. As detailed here (and also in Crikey) by former Australian statistician Bill McLennan, there is extremely strong doubt about the ABS’ ability to ask for name on a compulsory basis. Many TGD people, particularly seniors who have seen tougher times over most of their lives prefer to live without disclosing anything regarding their past regarding gender (referred to as “stealth” by TGD people). Concern over privacy is critical for them.

As a small example of this, not long after affirming my own identity some years ago, I received a letter addressed to “Mr Sally David Goldner” when an organisation’s databases erroneously “fused” my past and previous information together. This sort of occurrence could put some TGD people at risk and would certainly cause anxiety and distress.

Given recent intimidation of family members of TGD people by those with some negativity towards TGD people, these concerns about privacy need to be fully affirmed and addressed. It is also worth noting other groups, such as domestic abuse survivors, may also have concerns about the name retention issue.

The Census moves us in the right direction. We just need to keep refining the approach to (excuse the pun) ensure it just continues to make greater common census in the future.

Sally Goldner is Executive Director of Transgender Victoria.

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