Should Britain’s Gays Put Their Sexuality In The Census’ ‘Religion’ Box?

Ben Summerskill, the head of the UK’s gay advocacy group Stonewall, has already drawn fire for coming out against gay marriage because it’s too “expensive.” But what about his latest ploy supporting an effort to have gays write in “lesbian” (or, I’m assuming if you’re a man, “gay”) into the “Religion” option in this year’s census?

Credited to comedian Amy Lamé, the campaign reminds me of NGFTL’s “Queer The Census” campaign, which encouraged supporters to return their census form with a pink sticker identifying themselves as gay. But Lamé’s idea, which Stonewall’s Summerskill backed in an email blast, goes one step further — by hijacking the census’ religion field to declare sexuality.

“The Census is designed to ‘help allocate public spending fairly’ and gay people contribute more than £40 billion a year to the cost public services,” writes Summerskill. “Our deliberate exclusion by the civil servants responsible is gratuitously offensive.” Very true! But is screwing with the religion data the best answer?

Not according to The Guardian‘s Brent Martin, who notes:

This protest is fundamentally misguided, first because it distorts the census figures on religion in a way that will ultimately harm the very group in society the protest aims to protect. The British Humanist Association have already pointed out the folly of putting anything other than “no religion” if you are indeed not religious, as it leads to an undercount of those not professing a religion. Given that the main opponents of equality for gay and lesbian citizens tend to be religious groups, this can only be counterproductive if the number of non-religious people is seen to be falling.

That’s a good point: By making the religion data inaccurate, the census itself becomes suspect. But that’s where Martin’s argument goes from right to wrong:

But the underlying assumptions of this protest are also deeply flawed. According to the protest page: “Understanding the make-up of national, regional and local populations helps to make sure communities are offered and are able to access services appropriate for their needs.” What no one behind the protest has actually explained is how counting the number of gay and lesbian citizens will lead to ways of meeting any such needs. Indeed, implicit in the assumption behind the protest is that there are actual needs that are exclusive to the gay and lesbian community, currently unmet, that can be identified in a census.

I just don’t think there are. The thinking behind it is rather lazy because it assumes that we are a homogeneous group with the same or relatively similar needs that a census can identify. This is, of course, utter rubbish. Overall, we are as diverse as the rest of society. We are black and white, poor and rich, abled and less-abled and everything in between. Ironically, this is exactly what groups like Stonewall have been arguing for years – that sexuality makes no difference to our contribution to society.

Oooh gurl, so close, but so far off! For the same reason we need data about religious beliefs, race, and gender, so too do governments need data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of its population. How else will they know where underserved groups of people lie? Having data on gays will show how many people are discriminated against by Britain’s existing civil partnership laws. How many gay families need legal protections in case one parent falls ill. And, of course, where the gays are migrating so developers know where to build the next Top Shop.

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  • EdWoody

    Gays are not discriminated against by Britain’s civil partnership laws. It is marriage in everything but name, featuring all the same rights and obligations, only without a religious element. And that we don’t care about.

  • D.R.A.

    @EdWoody: Than why aren’t gay people allowed access to marriage?

    In fact, if civil partnerships are the same thing as marriage, why make civil partnerships in the first place, if not for the purpose of being discriminatory? Why not just let gay people get married?

  • Porl

    It’s irresponsible to encourage people to skew the census data. It really is vital to our country.

  • robert in NYC

    EdWoody, CPs are not identical to marriage. There is a discrepancy in the distribution of pensions. Same sex couples who register a civil partnership have the same right as married couples to survivor’s pensions for their civil partners. However, changes to pensions benefits are not usually retrospective, so historic inequalities can persist for many years – effectively till the end of a generation. UNISON campaigned hard for the new pension rights for same sex couples to be backdated. It was widely perceived as a major victory when it was agreed that benefits would be calculated on service since 1988. This is the date from which widowers’ benefits are calculated. But this still means that some surviving civil partners will receive less than they would have if they had been married.for starters and CPs don’t have any vows or divorce proceedings. A gay couple just signs a form and if they break up, they dissolve their union. It has NOTHING to do with semantics either.

    D.R.A. exactly! FYI, you may or may not know but the current Tory/Liberal Democratic coalition are mulling full civil marriage as well as civil partnership equality for gays and straights alike (interchangeable) and will probably become a reality in the near future, at least before the end of the current term which ends in 2015. Consultation for marriage equality will probably begin this year.

  • Amy Lamé

    Just want to make it clear I have not and do not support this campaign; my tweet was a personal cheeky question meant to provoke a debate, it was not associated with Stonewall in any way. Stonewall used my image and name without my consent in their e-newsletter; they have apologised to me and the matter is closed. I don’t care what people put on their census; but I do care that queers are counted, in the right & proper way, and I hope there is a question on the next census about sexuality (if there even is another census!)

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