The last census, and the next

We warmly welcome publication by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) of analysis of responses to ‘non-binary sex’ in the 2021 census.

IHRA has engaged with the ABS over many years, and Morgan Carpenter, our executive director, is a member of the ABS reference group for the Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables.

Our engagement seeks to ensure that people with intersex variations are treated in data collection in respectful ways that respect our diversity as a population. This includes respect for our social and legal status. This means respecting that people with intersex variations typically understand ourselves as female or male, while acknowledging that some people with intersex variations (like some non-intersex people) have other self-understandings.

Our approach has long been to recommend that questions aimed at counting people with intersex variations need to be separated from any questions on sex and gender. This approach has been adopted in the Standard.

Unfortunately, this approach was not adopted in the 2021 census. In that survey, a question on sex asked respondents if they are female, male or non-binary.

Ultimately, the government of the day decided the questions that could be asked, and the question on sex was vaguely and inappropriately framed. The analysis, however, is enlightening.

Actual responses to the question on sex provide a clear demonstration of the inadequacy of the current single question on sex in attempting to capture information about diverse marginalised populations, including attempts to count people with innate variations of sex characteristics. It provides a clear demonstration of the need for accurate, specific questions on variations of sex characteristics, gender and sexual orientation in the census.

We hope that our populations will be properly, respectfully and accurately counted in the next census, and we hope to work with the ABS and government to make sure that this happens.

Morgan Carpenter was a peer reviewer for the ABS analysis, along with Teddy Cook (ACON), Amber Loomis (LGBTIQ+ Health Australia) and Roz Bellamy (LaTrobe University).

More information

Analysis of non-binary sex responses in the 2021 census