Analysis of non-binary sex responses

Analysis of non-binary sex responses in the 2021 Census


Key messages

  • The 2021 Census collected responses on non-binary sex as part of the question on sex. However, this addition to the sex question did not yield meaningful data.
  • The Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables provides recommendations on how to ask questions to collect meaningful information on these variables. These questions are now included in ABS household surveys but were not included in the 2021 Census. The topics in the Census are determined by Government and the Parliament. The Government determined the 2021 Census should collect data on sex but not information on gender, variations of sex characteristics or sexual orientation.
  • The ABS will evaluate how information on sex was collected in the 2021 Census as part of preparation of topics and questions for the 2026 Census.

Change of approach for the 2021 Census

The 2021 Census allowed all respondents to select from three response options for the sex question: male, female and non-binary sex. The purpose of the addition of the non-binary sex option was to allow respondents to participate in the Census when the male or female sex categories did not accurately describe their sex.

As described in Non-binary sex in the 2021 Census, the sex question asked in the 2021 Census was not intended or designed to collect data on gender.

Limitations of collecting sex and gender in the Census

A person's sex is based upon their sex characteristics, such as their chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs. While typically based upon the sex characteristics observed and recorded at birth or infancy, a person's reported sex can change over the course of their lifetime and may differ from their sex recorded at birth. Gender is about social and cultural differences in identity, expression and experience as a man, woman or non-binary person.

The most recent Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables documents the ABS’ definitions of sex, gender, variations of sex characteristics and sexual orientation. The Standard describes that the best practice to accurately capture these concepts requires four separate questions. The four questions (sex recorded at birth, gender, variations of sex characteristics and sexual orientation) together lead to a comprehensive understanding of a person’s sex, current gender, if they have variations of sex characteristics and their sexual orientation.

The Standard notes that the terms sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably, for example a respondent might provide a gender response to a sex question. Asking sex recorded at birth may reduce the number of gender responses to a sex question, and inclusion of a specific gender question may also improve the accuracy of reporting against a sex question.

Information collected on the Census is outlined in the Census and Statistics Regulation 2016, which details the law in force on 11 February 2020. The topics included in the regulation, and therefore collected on each Census, are decided by the Australian Parliament. The regulation specifies that in relation to the 2021 Census, the Census should collect data on sex, but not gender. Therefore, additional questions outlined in the Standard were not asked in the 2021 Census.

2021 Census results

For the reasons outlined below, the ABS does not believe results from the 2021 non-binary sex category provide data of high enough quality to be used.

The non-binary sex option was marked on the Census form for 43,220 respondents or 0.17% of the Australian population. Analysis indicates this number is not indicative of any single characteristic. Responses show the concept of non-binary sex was not consistently understood and was perceived in different ways by different people. Results cannot be used as a measure of gender diversity, non-binary genders or trans populations. Additionally, it cannot be used as a measure for diverse sexualities, nor can it be interpreted as the number of people with variations of sex characteristics.  

Respondents who selected the non-binary sex option in the online form were able to provide more information in a text box. Of those who marked non-binary sex, one third provided a text response. Examination of these responses provides partial insight into how respondents interpreted the question.

Of the one third of respondents who provided a write in response:

  • three in five indicated a gender identity using terms such as agender, demiboy, gender fluid, non-binary gender and trans woman
  • one in three repeated the question response option and wrote in ‘non-binary sex’
  • a small number indicated a sexual orientation using terms such as bisexual, gay, lesbian and pansexual
  • a very small number indicated a variation of sex characteristics term such as intersex or 47XXY/Klinefelter syndrome.

The analysis of textual responses indicates that, in the absence of separate questions relating to gender identity, sexual orientation and variations of sex characteristics, many respondents chose to use the non-binary sex category to record responses for these characteristics. The range of information provided indicates that the question was not consistently answered. Given this, the ABS does not support the use of the non-binary sex category to estimate the prevalence of any specific group in the community.

The number of people selecting the non-binary sex option in the 2021 Census is significantly larger than the number of people who provided a response as other than male or female in the 2016 Census. However, in 2016 the form that allowed respondents to provide a non-binary response was only available on request. It is therefore not possible to make a valid comparison between these results. While the addition of ‘non-binary sex’ to the 2021 Census question did not capture meaningful data, it does provide a strong indication that the male and female options on the 2016 and previous censuses are not inclusive of many Australians.

Inclusion of data in 2021 Census releases

The data from all people who marked non-binary sex is included in the full range of Census data releases. In these data releases, a sex variable with male and female categories is used. Where a respondent provided a male or female response in combination with a non-binary sex response, the male or female response has been used to assign a binary sex value. Approximately 10% of these respondents selected both the non-binary sex category and female; another 7% selected the non-binary sex category and male. Most respondents (83%) selected only non-binary sex and therefore binary sex was derived using random allocation.

This approach was determined on the balance of feedback through consultation, including with representative bodies from LGBTIQ+ communities, and consideration of the statistical uses of the Census. This approach is not supported by all stakeholders or by all members of the community.

Next steps

The ABS will undertake evaluations of the 2021 Census to inform the 2026 Census. The ABS will also undertake community and stakeholder consultation on potential changes to topics in the 2026 Census. The ABS will make recommendations to the Government, including on the introduction of new topics, in mid 2024.

The ABS works closely with our counterparts in other national statistical organisations and we will learn from their experiences in asking questions on sex and gender in their recent censuses. Statistics Canada collected and published data on gender diversity from their 2021 national Census.

The ABS is implementing the Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables in its household survey program. The number of variables included depends on the amount of time available in the survey to ensure that the questions can be asked and answered suitably. Currently, both the National Health Survey and the National Mental Health Survey include questions on Sex at birth, Gender, Variations of sex characteristics and Sexual orientation. The 2022 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers includes Sex at birth, Gender and Sexual orientation.

The ABS plans to release data from the household survey program from the above-mentioned surveys when sufficient data has been collected to allow for high quality data that also maintains the privacy of survey respondents.

This article has been externally peer-reviewed by representatives from the following organisations:

  • Teddy Cook, ACON
  • Morgan Carpenter, Intersex Human Rights Australia
  • Amber Loomis, LGBTIQ+ Health Australia
  • Roz Bellamy, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society – La Trobe University

The ABS greatly values the knowledge, expertise and contributions of these reviewers and thanks them for their time and input.

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