‘Choose your own sex’ question considered for 2021 census

Everyone in England and Wales could be permitted to choose their own sex on the upcoming census, if controversial draft wording is approved.

In proposed advice for the “What is your sex?” question, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) allows people to give their preferred option instead of biological reality.

It is trialling the question and advice, along with voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, in four local authority ‘rehearsals’ this autumn.


The advice has been met with a chorus of criticism. University professor Rosa Freedman described it as “ludicrous”, saying, “if people could just pick a race or disability, we would all be up in arms”.

“The purpose of the census is to understand what the population is and plan for those demographics. The census is not there to validate someone’s gender identity.”

if people could just pick a race or disability, we would all be up in arms.

Professor Rosa Freedman

Dr Julie Maxwell, an NHS paediatrician, said the change may affect national statistics and health provision.

She added that her “biggest fear” is that children do not get “appropriate health services allocated for their needs because of messing around with statistics”.


Policy analyst Dr Kath Murray warned that the next census could set a worrying precedent.

“Sex, together with age, is a core topic frequently compared with other population characteristics and this data has been gathered since the very first census in 1801.

“Because of the importance of the census, whatever decision is taken in 2021 is likely to set a precedent for other data collection exercises.

“If the UK census authorities proceed with a sex question on a self-identification basis, we are likely to see other public bodies do the same.”


The ONS said it gave similar advice over the telephone during the previous census in 2011.

In a paper outlining its approach, it said: “Following the rehearsal we will analyse the results and this will include seeking feedback from the contact centre staff who will be using this guidance when handling calls from the public.

“We will continue to engage with stakeholders if a need for further development is identified.”


In Scotland, there was a recent U-turn on the census with a non-binary option being shelved.

It followed criticism from politicians who said the consultation process on the question had “serious deficiencies”.

Listen to BBC’s “More or Less” programme from 2010 on LGB statistics

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