Queering the census: LGBT advocacy and the inclusion of a sexual orientation question in the 2021 UK census

The 2021 census will be the UK's first to include a question about sexual orientation, making the UK the first country in the world to ask about this topic in its national census. Asking about sexual orientation in the census poses several challenges, including issues of intra-household privacy and the difficulty of capturing the complex nature of sexual identities using a single question with tick-box responses.

This project will investigate the role of organisations representing LGBT people in the process leading to the addition of this question. Through document analysis and interviews with census officials and LGBT organisations involved in advocating for the addition of the sexual orientation question, the project will explore these advocacy efforts and strategies, and analyse how activists navigate tensions between the practical and symbolic importance of recognising LGBT identities in the census and concerns about privacy and the difficulty of enumerating potentially fluid sexual identities.

This research is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant Scheme (the Academy Research Fund). The project started in April 2020 and will run until September 2022.

Aim of the research

The overarching aim of the project is to understand how and why LGBT organisations have advocated for the addition of a question on sexual orientation to the 2021 UK census, given the challenges associated with sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data collection.

In order to achieve this aim, the project will have three specific objectives:

  1. To understand the role that LGBT activist organisations played in the decision-making process that led to the addition of a question about sexual orientation to the 2021 UK census, through analysing the arguments they made in favour of adding the question and why these were successful.
  2. To explore how these organisations have navigated two key tensions: between practical and symbolic demands for the collection of data on sexual orientation and concerns about intra-household privacy; and between calls for LGBT visibility in the census and concerns about the ability of a question to measure complex and potentially fluid sexual identities.
  3. To understand the strategies employed by organisations to address the possibility of an undercount of the LGBT population in the census resulting from these privacy and definitional concerns.

Outputs and impact

Cooley, L. (2020) 'Sexual orientation and the 2021 UK census', European Journal of Politics and Gender, advance access, doi: 10.1332/251510820X15845548424385

Contact details

Dr Laurence Cooley (PI) l.p.cooley@bham.ac.uk