/ 24 October 2023

The importance of LGBTIQ+ inclusion in future censuses

Thai Lgbt Pro Democracy Protesters Carry A Rainbow Flag

In October 1990, the first LGBTIQ+ Pride celebration took place in South Africa, marking a historic moment that continues to inspire and motivate efforts to protect the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals on the African continent. 

As South Africa and the continent celebrate October as LGBTIQ+ Pride Month, we are reminded of the persistent structural exclusion of LGBTIQ+ individuals in certain aspects of government practice. 

Exclusion in the 2022 Census

South Africa, a country known for its progressive Constitution on LGBTIQ+ rights, launched its 2022 Census data on Tuesday, 10 October 2023. According to the data, there are over 62 million people in South Africa compared to the 2011 census, which recorded 51 770 560 people — a population growth rate of 1.8% per year. 

While the release of this vital information is a significant milestone in understanding the country’s demographic and socio-economic landscape, it can be criticised for continuing the exclusion of questions related to sex beyond the binary, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

In 2019, Statistics South Africa gave data users, such as provincial and local government, researchers and academics, as well as the general public, an opportunity to propose new questions for the 2022 census.Some stakeholders proposed questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to move the census beyond the traditional assumption of binary classification in sex identification, which divides individuals into either male or female.

After piloting a series of new questions, Stats SA faced criticism for its questionnaire development approach and was accused of structural discrimination for excluding demographic categories that would measure the size and experiences of the LGBTIQ+ population in South Africa (Dywaba, 2022; Roxburgh, 2022). 

Although Stats SA acknowledged the need to identify and profile hidden social groups, they cited limitations in statistical and surveying capacity to monitor new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, which would potentially “threaten” the accuracy of the previous census counts. 

A question on sex has been consistently asked over time and is meant to collect the biological sex characteristics of the entire population. However, restricting the categories of choice to either binary male or female has excluded intersex people whose sex characteristics may lie on a spectrum.

This has raised concerns about the census’s inclusivity for not capturing the identity complexities of the entire population. While the census recognises households of same-sex couples who are either married or cohabitating, this approach has also faced criticism for not being explicit. 

It lumps in “husband/wife/partners” as one category when asking about the head of household and marital status, and it excludes single LGBTIQ+ individuals in non-cohabitating relationships, as well as bisexual individuals involved in diverse forms of sexual relationships.

Launch of 2022 census data

Post-apartheid censuses, conducted since 1996, are crucial in informing government policies, resource allocation and socio-economic programmes. They provide an invaluable snapshot of the country’s population, helping policymakers make informed decisions. 

During the launch of the 2022 census data, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated: 

“The data contained in the census is one of the most crucial planning, monitoring and evaluation tools for government … We have long said that one of our priorities of building a capable and ethical developmental state, is to ensure that policy-making is evidence-driven. 

“Policy-making that is not informed by accurate data can result in inefficiency in the allocation of resources, underestimation with regard to the needs of our citizens, poorly planned programmes and poor financial allocation and management.”

Ramaphosa’s remarks suggest that for the government to make well-informed decisions about citizens’ needs, it relies on data that accurately reflects their real-life experiences. However, this stands in contrast to the perceptions of certain minority groups who feel that the government does not fully recognise their presence when making policies and decisions within South Africa.

Rethinking measurements of sex, gender and sexuality

A seminar series hosted by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory in late 2022 unpacked the importance of nuancing the measurements of sex, gender and sexuality in social surveys conducted in Africa, with a particular focus on South Africa. 

During the seminar, there was a consensus among all speakers from government, academic and survey institutions, survey organisations and civil society, that the lack of accurate statistical data that measures the size and experiences of LGBTIQ+ individuals makes it difficult to plan and allocate resources properly to meet their unique needs. 

In addition, it was argued that, without data on the experiences of the LGBTIQ+ population, the census will continue to perpetuate disparities and inequalities within society because the specific needs and vulnerabilities of the LGBTIQ+ individuals often go unnoticed.

Future censuses: a step towards inclusivity

South Africa has made impressive strides in LGBTIQ+ rights, including legalising same-sex marriage and protecting the LGBTIQ+ population against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, in practice, these rights are not fully realised because the LGBTIQ+ population is left out of government planning practices. 

As South Africa celebrates the release of its 2022 census data, it is important to acknowledge the missed opportunity of broadening the binary sex question and the exclusion of questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity. It was a missed opportunity to count, understand and address the needs of the LGBTIQ+ community fully. 

For instance, the 2020-2030 National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide recognises data needs on the prevalence and experiences of gender-based violence and femicide among marginalised groups,such as those with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. Consequently, the planned interventions are more tailored to address violence against women, without specific consideration for their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

The limitation of data on the experiences of LGBTIQ+ individuals hinders the national strategic plan to implement programmes that are inclusive across the country. For that reason, it is essential to recognise that collecting appropriate data on sex variation, sexual orientation and gender identity is not only a matter of inclusivity but also a practical necessity to make government planning practices and processes more open. 

A few countries, including the UK and Canada, have recently recognised the importance of collecting data on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex beyond the binary in their censuses. South Africa has the potential to lead the way in Africa by collecting nationally representative data that represents the experiences of the LGBTIQ+ population. 

This is due to its progressive Constitution and the existence of several major social surveys, such as the GCRO’s Quality of Life survey and the HSRC’s South African Social Attitudes Survey, which have already begun to contribute to the collection of data measuring the size of these individuals in the country. 

Although challenges related to LGBTIQ+ wording, sampling and weighting have been identified when it comes to the inclusion of questions beyond the binary in population-based studies, it is important for Stats SA to collaborate with organisations responsible for commissioning major social surveys that have included questions on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex beyond the binary in the country. 

This will help determine best practices and effective methods to ask about non-binary sex, gender and sexuality in future censuses and ensure that the collected population-based data can be harmonised and made comparable across all studies.

Inclusivity in government practices starts with listening to minority voices, valuing their experiences and ensuring their representation in decision-making processes. For a government to be more open, it must ensure that it serves all individuals, including those with specific needs or limited political influence and hears their voices. 

While the national government has historically structured the census in a cisgendered and heteronormative way, addressing the exclusion of LGBTIQ+ individuals is crucial to demonstrate the government’s commitment to serving all citizens. Achieving this can be facilitated by creating an inclusive government environment that encourages interactions between different groups and individuals advocating for the LGBTIQ+ community to foster politics of recognition and inclusion.

The views expressed are those of the author and based on the Queering Social Survey Research seminar series, available here.