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Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables

This Standard standardises the collection and dissemination of data relating to sex, gender, variations of sex characteristics and sexual orientation.

Reference period
2020

Introduction

The Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables, 2020 ("2020 Standard") has been developed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to standardise the collection and dissemination of data relating to sex, gender, variations of sex characteristics and sexual orientation.

This 2020 Standard replaces the Standard for Sex and Gender Variables, 2016, with updated sex and gender variables, as well as the introduction of variables for variations of sex characteristics and sexual orientation.

This product presents statistical standards for four variables:

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Variations of sex characteristics
  • Sexual orientation. 

The 2020 Standard describes the four variables and their associated conceptual issues and definitions. The standard for each variable includes the concept(s), definition(s), questionnaire modules, classification, coding structure, and output categories to be used in ABS interviewer-based and self-enumerated collections. The 2020 Standard also provides guidance on deriving cisgender (cis) and trans and gender diverse (trans) counts using the sex and gender variables.

The four variables included in the 2020 Standard, when cross-classified with other variables, can provide comprehensive data on a particular topic, issue or population group. This information can be used for a range of purposes, including:

  • informed decision making and planning
  • policy formulation and monitoring
  • social, population and economic research and analysis
  • program provision and evaluation (e.g. health services).

The 2020 Standard can be used by other government, academic and private sector organisations in their own statistical collections to improve the comparability and quality of data.

In terms of ABS collections, typically ABS household-based surveys would draw upon one or more of the four variables in the 2020 Standard. These surveys have strict time limits to reduce burden on respondents and the cost of collecting the information. Accordingly, the amount of content available for any topic is limited and is tailored to the output requirements and analysis the survey is intended to support. Therefore, each survey may include one or more of these variables on a case by case basis.

Although initially a small number of ABS surveys will include a question for all four variables, and this will grow over time, the key driver for the standard is to ensure that all survey participants can answer the questions in a way that accurately describes their situation. This means respondents can fully participate in the survey, and allows measures to be collected and published where needed.  Additionally, given that only a small proportion of the population reports a non-binary sex, most ABS surveys will only output the binary responses to a sex question (Male or Female).

The 2020 Standard was developed through extensive research, consultation and testing. The ABS thanks the Commonwealth and state/territory agencies, academics and non-government organisations, international statistical organisations and public who contributed. 

Legislation

This standard was developed to respect the intent of the Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, November 2015 ('Guidelines') prepared by the Attorney-General's Department, which complements Australian anti-discrimination laws and the Australian Privacy Principles (Privacy Act 1988). The Guidelines provide guidance to Australian Government departments and agencies to ensure that appropriate options are provided to individuals who may identify and be recognised within the community as a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth or during infancy, or as a gender which is not exclusively male or female. The 2020 Standard has been prepared with the participation of representatives from the Attorney-General's Department, respecting the intent of the Guidelines while acknowledging best practice terminology and language has evolved since 2015.

Confidentiality and Privacy Policy

Confidentiality, statistical and technical issues may arise at various levels of dissemination if a small number of responses are recorded in any of the output categories. Users of the 2020 Standard should consider the privacy of respondents when determining the level of data disaggregation, using confidentiality techniques such as output suppression or combining output categories. 

All data collected by the ABS is subject to confidentiality rules where no individual shall be identified and an individual response should not be identifiable. The ABS Privacy Policy outlines how the ABS will handle any personal information that you provide to us. 

Contact Information

The Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables, 2020 has been produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Enquiries should be directed to gender.statistics@abs.gov.au.

Sex

Underlying Concepts

Name of variable

The name of the variable is ‘sex’.

Definitions

Nominal definition

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.

Operational definition

Sex recorded at birth refers to what was determined by sex characteristics observed at birth or infancy. This is an important indicator for statistical analysis in births and deaths, health statistics, calculating fertility rates and deriving counts for cis and trans populations. 

A collection may instead ask for a person's sex at the time of completing a survey, rather than their sex recorded at birth. However, there are advantages of sex recorded at birth as the sex question and further data that can be derived when using sex recorded at birth as the sex question, as outlined below in Discussion on conceptual issues.

Discussion on conceptual issues

Sex and gender

The terms sex and gender are interrelated and often used interchangeably, however they are two distinct concepts:

  • Sex is understood in relation to sex characteristics. Sex recorded at birth refers to what was determined by sex characteristics observed at birth or infancy
  • Gender is about social and cultural differences in identity, expression and experience. This is discussed further in the Gender variable.

While they are two related concepts, caution should be exercised when comparing counts for sex with those for gender. Caution should also be exercised when comparing counts for sex recorded at birth and the sex of a person at the time of completing a survey, as a person's reported sex may change over the course of their lifetime.

As the terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably, a respondent might provide a gender response to a sex question. The sex recorded at birth question may reduce the number of gender responses to a sex question. Inclusion of a specific gender question may also improve accuracy of reporting against a sex question. If both sex and gender questions are included in a survey, it is recommended that the sex question is asked first, with a note that a separate gender question will also be asked. Where practical, best practice is to ask both the sex and gender questions on the same page of the survey instrument.

For collections requiring cis and trans outputs, sex recorded at birth is the required sex question. This is discussed further in the Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification section.

Third response option for sex

A small number of people do not have a sex of male or female recorded at birth or infancy. The inclusion of 'Another term' as a third response option for the sex at birth question recognises that across Australian jurisdictions and elsewhere there are a range of options available on birth certificates (such as indeterminate or unspecified). Providing respondents with the opportunity to select a third response option, and provide a written response, enhances data quality.

Interviewer administered surveys

The Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, November 2015 recommend "departments and agencies should refrain from making assumptions about a person's sex and/or gender identity based on indicators such as their name, voice or appearance". Accordingly, the mandatory elements of the sex question include a note that, for interviewer administered surveys, the sex question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer, as reflected in ABS interviewer training.

Measuring variations of sex characteristics ('intersex')

While intersex is an option available in some Australian jurisdictions and elsewhere for birth certificates, and may be captured in the 'Another term' response option, this should not be used as a count of people who have variations of sex characteristics. Many variations of sex characteristics are not evident at birth, and people may not be aware they were born with a variation of sex characteristics until puberty or later in life. The inclusion of born with a variation of sex characteristics or intersex as a response option in a sex question, alongside male and female, is not capable of generating reliable or consistent results in measuring this population, and perpetuates the misconception that intersex people are neither male nor female. 

For surveys where a count of people born with variations of sex characteristics is required, a separate question is necessary. The question required to capture counts of people born with variations of sex characteristics is detailed in the Variations of Sex Characteristics variable.

Collection Method

Scope - Statistical units

Sex is an attribute of the counting unit ‘person’.

Standard question module (sex recorded at birth)

Mandatory elements

The following elements must be included:

  • The words ‘sex recorded at birth' in the question to clearly articulate the concept being collected
  • Label the response options 'Male', 'Female', and 'Another term (please specify)'
  • A write-in facility is available when the 'Another term (please specify)' response option is selected 
  • Only one response is permitted
  • If this question is interviewer administered, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.
Recommended elements

The following elements are recommended:

  • Use inclusive language (e.g. 'they' or 'their' rather than 'he/she' or 'his/her')
  • If both sex and gender questions are included, ask the sex question first and note that a separate question on gender is also asked in the survey
  • If both sex and gender questions are included, ask both on the same page of the instrument if practical.
Question structure

The standard sex question structure is comprised of:

Download

 What was [your/Person's name/their] sex recorded at birth?

Please [tick/mark/select] one box.
Male
Female
Another term (please specify)

Allowable alternative question module (option 1)

This allowable alternative recognises that in some circumstances a question that asks for a person's sex at the time of completing a survey may be required. This will be the same response as sex recorded at birth for most but not all respondents, so the 'two-step method' for deriving cis and trans counts should not be used with this sex question, as discussed in the Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification section.

Mandatory elements

The following elements must be included:

  • The word ‘sex' in the question to clearly articulate the concept being collected
  • Label the response options 'Male', 'Female', and 'Another term (please specify)'
  • A write-in facility is available when the 'Another term (please specify)' response option is selected
  • Only one response is permitted
  • If this question is interviewer administered, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.
Recommended elements

The following elements are recommended for inclusion:

  • Use inclusive language (e.g. 'they' or 'their' rather than 'he/she' or 'his/her')
  • If both sex and gender questions are included, ask the sex question first and note that a separate question on gender is also asked in the survey
  • If both sex and gender questions are included, ask both on the same page of the instrument if practical.
Question structure

The alternative sex question (option 1) structure is comprised of:

Download

 What is [your/Person's name/their] sex?

Please [tick/mark/select] one box.
Male
Female
Another term (please specify)

Allowable alternative question module (option 2)

This alternative allows surveys to use the 2021 Census of Population and Housing sex question. This will be the same response as sex recorded at birth for most but not all respondents, so the 'two-step method' for deriving cis and trans counts should not be used with this sex question.

Mandatory elements

The following element must be included:

  • Label the response options 'Male', 'Female', and 'Non-binary sex'.
Recommended elements

The following elements are recommended for inclusion:

  • Make a write-in facility available when the 'Non-binary sex' response option is selected
  • If 'Non-binary sex' is selected, respondents may also select either 'Male' or 'Female' otherwise only one response is permitted.
Question structure

The alternative sex question (option 2) structure is comprised of:

Download

 Is the person?

Male
Female
Non-binary sex

Classification and Coding

The criterion used to distinguish the categories of the sex standard classification and coding is a person's sex recorded at birth or infancy, usually based upon observed sex characteristics, as provided in Table 1.

Download
Table 1. The Sex Standard Classification and Code Structure (Sex Recorded at Birth)
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1MMalePersons whose sex at birth or infancy was recorded as male.
2FFemalePersons whose sex at birth or infancy was recorded as female.
3XAnother termPersons whose sex at birth or infancy was recorded as other than male or female.

Where the alternative sex question (option 1) is used, the classification and coding is outlined in Table 2 below. The criterion used to distinguish the categories of the sex classification is reported sex. 

Download
Table 2. The Sex Standard Alternative Question (option 1) Classification and Code Structure
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1MMalePersons who reported their sex as male.
2FFemalePersons who reported their sex as female.
3XAnother termPersons who reported their sex as another term, other than male or female.

Where the alternative sex question (option 2) is used, the classification and coding is outlined in Table 3 below. The criterion used to distinguish the categories of the sex classification is reported sex.

Download
Table 3. The Sex Standard Alternative Question (option 2) Classification and Code Structure
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1MMalePersons who reported their sex as male.
2FFemalePersons who reported their sex as female.
3XNon-binary sexPersons who reported their sex as non-binary sex.

Supplementary code

The following supplementary code is used to code a non-response or inadequately described response for sex:

9 - Not stated or inadequately described.

Coding indexes

Sex data are coded directly to the code structures shown in the tables above without the need for coding indexes to interpret and code responses.

Derivation procedures

The sex recorded at birth question is used with a gender question to derive cis and trans counts through the 'two-step method'. This is detailed further in the Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification section.

Scope of variable

The variable of sex applies to all persons.

Output

Output categories

The standard output categories for sex are:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Another term
  • Not stated*.

* Not stated includes responses that were inadequately described.

For the 2021 Census, the standard output categories for sex are:

  • Male
  • Female.

The term 'Persons' is used in preference to 'Total' when presenting total population counts for sex. 

Confidentiality, statistical and technical issues may arise at various levels of dissemination if a small number of responses are recorded in any of the output categories. When these issues arise, outputs may be suppressed or combined into other categories. All data collected by the ABS is subject to confidentiality rules where no individual shall be identified and an individual response should not be identifiable. The ABS Privacy Policy outlines how the ABS will handle any personal information provided to us.

Gender

Underlying Concepts

Name of the variable

The name of the variable is 'gender'.

Definitions

Nominal definition

Gender is a social and cultural concept. It is about social and cultural differences in identity, expression and experience as a man, woman or non-binary person. Non-binary is an umbrella term describing gender identities that are not exclusively male or female.

Gender includes the following concepts:

  • Gender identity is about who a person feels themself to be
  • Gender expression is the way a person expresses their gender. A person's gender expression may also vary depending on the context, for instance expressing different genders at work and home
  • Gender experience describes a person’s alignment with the sex recorded for them at birth i.e. a cis experience or a trans experience. 

Responses to a gender question may reflect a combination of gender identity, expression and/or experience. In statistical collections, gender may be reported in terms of a person's felt or lived gender, as well as how that person is perceived by others, depending on whether information on gender is based on self-reported data or done by proxy. 

Operational definition

The operational definition is the same as the nominal definition.

Discussion on conceptual issues

Gender and sex

The terms sex and gender are interrelated and often used interchangeably within the general community. However they are two distinct concepts:

  • Sex is understood in relation to sex characteristics. Sex recorded at birth refers to what was initially determined by sex characteristics observed at birth or infancy.
  • Gender is about social and cultural identity, expression and experience. 

While they are two related concepts, caution should be exercised when comparing counts for sex with those for gender as a person's gender may be different to what is indicated on legal documents:

  • For cis individuals, their sex recorded at birth and their gender are the same. For example, a person's sex recorded at birth was female and their gender is female.
  • While for trans individuals, their sex recorded at birth and their gender are not the same. For example, a person's sex recorded at birth was female and their gender is male or non-binary.
Fluidity

A person's gender may differ from their sex and may also differ from what is indicated on their legal documents.  A person's gender may stay the same or can change over the course of their lifetime. The gender response option chosen will reflect a person's gender at that point in time. Some people may not identify with a specific gender or with the concept of gender at all.

Interviewer administered surveys

The Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, November 2015 recommend "departments and agencies should refrain from making assumptions about a person's sex and/or gender identity based on indicators such as their name, voice or appearance". Accordingly, the mandatory elements of the gender question include a note that, for interviewer administered surveys, the gender question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.

Collection Method

Scope – Statistical units

Gender is an attribute of the counting unit ‘person’.

Standard question module

Mandatory elements

The following elements must be included:

  • The word ‘gender’ in the question to clearly articulate the concept being collected
  • Label the response options 'Man or male', 'Woman or female', 'Non-binary', '[I/they] use a different term (please specify)', and 'Prefer not to answer'
  • A write-in facility is available when the '[I/they] use a different term (please specify)' response option is selected
  • Including a note to respondents that "Gender refers to current gender, which may be different to sex recorded at birth and may be different to what is indicated on legal documents"
  • Only one response is permitted
  • If this question is interviewer administered, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.
Recommended elements

The following elements are recommended for inclusion:

  • Use inclusive language (e.g. 'they' or 'their' rather than 'he/she' or 'his/her')
  • If both sex and gender questions are included, ask the sex question first and note that a separate question on gender is asked in the survey 
  • If both sex and gender questions are included, ask both on the same page of the instrument if practical.
Question structure

The standard gender question structure is comprised of:

Download

 How [do/does] [you/Person's name/they] describe [your/their] gender?

Gender refers to current gender, which may be different to sex recorded at birth and may be different to what is indicated on legal documents. 

Please [tick/mark/select] one box:
Man or male
Woman or female
Non-binary
[I/They] use a different term (please specify)
Prefer not to answer

Classification and Coding

The criterion used to distinguish the categories of the gender classification and coding is provided in Table 4.

Download
Table 4. The Gender Standard Classification and Code Structure
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1MMan or malePersons who described their gender as man or male.
2FWoman or femalePersons who described their gender as woman or female.
3XNon-binaryPersons who described their gender as non-binary.
4TDifferent termPersons who described their gender as a term other than man/male, woman/female or non-binary.*
5ZPrefer not to answerPersons who preferred not to respond on how they describe their gender.

* Except where the written response for 'Different term' indicates a variation of one of 'Man or male', 'Woman or female' or 'Non-binary', where that response will be coded to the associated label. 
 

Supplementary code

The following supplementary code is used to code a non-response or inadequately described response for gender:

9 - Not stated or inadequately described.

Coding indexes

Gender data are usually coded directly to the code structures shown in the table above without the need for coding indexes to interpret and code responses. However, written responses provided for a 'Different term' could be considered to determine if any responses should more accurately be coded to 'Man or male', 'Woman or female' or 'Non-binary'.

Derivation procedures

The gender question is used with a sex recorded at birth question to derive cis and trans counts through the 'two-step method'. This is detailed further in the Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification section.

Scope of variable

The variable gender applies to all persons.

Output

Output categories

The standard output categories for gender are:

  • Man
  • Woman
  • Non-binary*
  • Not stated**.

* Responses coded to 'Different term' are included in the output category 'Non-binary'. 
** Coded responses of 'Prefer not to answer' and inadequately described responses are included in the output category 'Not stated'.

The term 'Persons' is used in preference to 'Total' when presenting total population counts for both sex and gender.

Confidentiality, statistical and technical issues may arise at various levels of dissemination if a small number of responses are recorded in any of the output categories. When these issues arise, outputs may be suppressed or combined into other categories. All data collected by the ABS is subject to confidentiality rules where no individual shall be identified and an individual response should not be identifiable. The ABS Privacy Policy outlines how the ABS will handle any personal information provided to us.

Variations of Sex Characteristics

Underlying Concepts

Name of variable

The name of the variable is 'variations of sex characteristics'.

Definitions

Nominal definition

Variations of sex characteristics refers to people with innate genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that do not conform to medical norms for female or male bodies. It refers to a wide spectrum of variations to genitals, hormones, chromosomes and/or reproductive organs.

Other umbrella terms used to describe being born with variations of sex characteristics are intersex or Differences/Disorders of Sex Development (DSD).

Operational definition

The operational definition for variations of sex characteristics is the same as the nominal definition. However, it should be noted that this question will only capture data on people with variations of sex characteristics who are aware at the time of the survey that they were born with a variation of sex characteristics, as discussed in the Discussion on conceptual issues section. 

Discussion on conceptual issues

Awareness

Many variations of sex characteristics are not evident at birth, and people may not be aware they were born with a variation of sex characteristics until puberty or later in life. It is also possible that a person may never know that they were born with a variation of sex characteristics. There is no singular experience or identity for people born with variations of sex characteristics.

Separate question required

For surveys where a count of people born with variations of sex characteristics is required, a separate question is necessary. The inclusion of born with a variation of sex characteristics or intersex as a response option in a sex question, alongside male and female, is not capable of generating reliable or consistent results in measuring this population, because some intersex people identify as male or female, and some do not.

Asking about others

A survey respondent should not be asked to respond as to whether others were born with a variation of sex characteristics. This question is appropriate as a self-reporting question only.

Interviewer administered surveys

Interviewers should refrain from making assumptions about whether a person was born with a variation of sex characteristics based on indicators such as their name, voice or appearance. The mandatory elements of the variations of sex characteristics question includes a note that, for interviewer administered surveys, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer. To facilitate this, an alternative question is provided, recognising that ABS interview procedure is that material in brackets is not read out.

Collection Method

Scope – Statistical units

Variations of sex characteristics is an attribute of the counting unit ‘person’.

Standard question module

Mandatory elements

The following elements must be included:

  • The words ‘born with a variation of sex characteristics (sometimes called 'intersex' or 'DSD')' in the question to clearly articulate the concept being collected
  • Label the response options 'Yes', 'No', 'Don't know', and 'Prefer not to answer'
  • Only one response is permitted
  • If this question is interviewer administered, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.
Recommended elements

The following element is recommended for inclusion:

  • Use inclusive language (e.g. 'they' or 'their' rather than 'he/she' or 'his/her').
Question structure

The standard variations of sex characteristics question structure is comprised of:

Download

 Were you born with a variation of sex characteristics (sometimes called 'intersex' or 'DSD')?

Please [tick/mark/select] one box:
Yes
No
Don't know
Prefer not to answer

Allowable alternative question

This allowable alternative recognises that for ABS interviewer administered surveys, the text in brackets is not always read out. The standard question module is optimised for self-enumerated surveys while this allowable alternative is optimised for interviewer administered surveys.

Mandatory elements

The mandatory elements for the allowable alternative question module are the same as that of the standard question module.

Recommended elements

The recommended elements for the allowable alternative question module are the same as that of the standard question module.

Question structure

The allowable alternative variations of sex characteristics question structure is comprised of:

Download

 Were you born with a variation of sex characteristics, sometimes called 'intersex' or 'DSD'?

Please [tick/mark/select] one box:
Yes
No
Don't know
Prefer not to answer

Classification and Coding

The criterion used to distinguish the categories of the variations of sex characteristics classification and coding is provided in Table 5.

Download
Table 5. The Variations of Sex Characteristics Standard Classification and Code Structure
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1YYesPersons who know they were born with a variation of sex characteristics.
2NNoPersons who know they were not born with a variation of sex characteristics.
3UDon't knowPersons who do not know if they were born with a variation of sex characteristics.
4ZPrefer not to answerPersons who preferred not to respond on whether or not they were born with a variation of sex characteristics.

Supplementary codes

The following supplementary codes are used to code a non-response or where a response is not applicable (for instance when questions are asking about another person) for variations of sex characteristics:

9 - Not stated 
0 - Not applicable or null value.

Coding indexes

Variations of sex characteristics data are coded directly to the code structures in the table above without the need for coding indexes to interpret and code responses.

Scope of variable

The variable variations of sex characteristics applies to all persons.

Output

Output categories

The standard output categories for variations of sex characteristics are:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Don't know
  • Not stated*.

* Coded responses of 'Prefer not to answer' are included in the output category 'Not stated'.

The term 'Persons' is used in preference to 'Total' when presenting total population counts for variations of sex characteristics.

Confidentiality, statistical and technical issues may arise at various levels of dissemination if a small number of responses are recorded in any or all of the output categories. When these issues arise, outputs may be suppressed or combined into other categories. All data collected by the ABS is subject to confidentiality rules where no individual shall be identified and an individual response should not be identifiable. The ABS Privacy Policy outlines how the ABS will handle any personal information provided to us.

Sexual Orientation

Underlying Concepts

Name of the variable

The name of the variable is 'sexual orientation'.

Definitions

Nominal definition

Sexual orientation is an umbrella concept that encapsulates:

  • sexual identity (how a person thinks of their sexuality and the terms they identify with)
  • attraction (romantic or sexual interest in another person)
  • behaviour (sexual behaviour). 

Responses to a sexual orientation question are a subjective view of oneself and can change over the course of a person's lifetime and in different contexts. An individual could respond differently to questions on either sexual identity, attraction or behaviour.

Operational definition

The sexual orientation question is asking about sexual identity and attraction. This is how a person thinks of their own sexuality, the term they identify with and their romantic or sexual attraction to others.

There are a number of ways in which someone might define their sexual identity and attraction to others. Common examples include heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.

Discussion on conceptual issues

Alignment of identity, attraction and behaviour

This question is designed to collect data on self-perceived sexual identity, which is how a person thinks of their sexuality and the terms they identify with, and a person's romantic or sexual attraction to others. The question was not designed for specific or detailed studies of sexual behaviour. If there is an identified need for data on sexual behaviour, a series of more detailed questions and answer categories may be more appropriate. However, regardless of the supplied operational definition, and focus on sexual identity and attraction, individual interpretations of the question will remain and responses to this question may be a combination of one or more of sexual identity, attraction and behaviour.

Fluidity

Sexual orientation is a subjective view of oneself and can change over the course of a person's lifetime and in different contexts. Any data captured using this question will only represent a point in time.

Age

Sexual orientation may not be appropriate to ask for people of all ages. The age at which a person is asked to provide a response to this question will be determined by the protocols of the data collection and should be consistent with the collection of other similar information. A person can have a sexual identity and attraction while not being sexually active.

As a guide, the age 15 years and older is the recommended age for asking the sexual orientation question in general demographic collections. However, some data collections may require a different target age (for example, younger ages for youth surveys). The decision on what age to apply this question to relies on the purpose of the data collection and the need for the information.

Asking about others

A survey respondent should not be asked to respond on the sexual orientation of others in scope for the collection. This question is appropriate as a self-reporting question only.

Interviewer administered surveys

Interviewers should refrain from making assumptions about a person's sexual orientation based on indicators such as their name, voice or appearance. The mandatory elements of the sexual orientation question includes a note that, for interviewer administered surveys, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.

Other terms

A variety of terms may be used to describe a person's sexual orientation. 'Asexual', 'Pansexual' and 'Queer', are three of the more common terms not included in the standard question module, but provided as approved additional response options for surveys in the Collection Method section.

Collection Method

Scope – Statistical units

Sexual orientation is an attribute of the counting unit ‘person’.

Standard question module

Mandatory elements

The following elements must be included:

  • The words ‘sexual orientation’ in the question to clearly articulate the concept being collected
  • Label the response options 'Straight (heterosexual)', 'Gay or lesbian', 'Bisexual', 'I use a different term (please specify)', 'Don't know' and 'Prefer not to answer'
  • A write-in facility is available when the 'I use a different term (please specify)' response option is selected
  • Only one response is permitted
  • If this question is interviewer administered, the question must always be asked as written and no assumptions made by the interviewer.
Recommended elements

The following element is recommended for inclusion:

  • Use inclusive language (e.g. 'they' or 'their' rather than 'he/she' or 'his/her')
Question structure

The standard sexual orientation question structure is comprised of:

Download

 How do you describe your sexual orientation?

Please [tick/mark/select] one box:
Straight (heterosexual)
Gay or lesbian
Bisexual
I use a different term (please specify)
Don't know
Prefer not to answer

Alternative question module

Mandatory elements

The mandatory elements for the allowable alternative question module are the same as that of the standard module.

Recommended elements

The recommended elements for the allowable alternative question module are the same as that of the standard module.

Question structure

The alternative sexual orientation question structure is the same as the standard question with the following amendments:

  • Any or all of 'Asexual', 'Pansexual' and 'Queer' may be added to the question response options
  • 'Gay or lesbian' response option may be split into separate response options of 'Gay' and 'Lesbian'.

Classification and Coding

The criterion used to distinguish the categories of the sexual orientation classification and coding is provided in Table 6.

Download
Table 6. The Sexual Orientation Standard Classification and Code Structure
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1SStraight (heterosexual)Persons whose sexual orientation is towards persons of a different sex.
2GGay or lesbianPersons whose sexual orientation is towards persons of the same sex.
3BBisexualPersons whose sexual orientation is towards persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.
4TDifferent termPersons who use a different term for their sexual orientation than those provided.*
5UDon't knowPersons who do not know their sexual orientation.
6ZPrefer not to answerPersons who do not want to disclose their sexual orientation.

*Except where the written response for 'Different term' indicates a variation of one of 'Straight (heterosexual)', 'Gay or lesbian' or 'Bisexual', where that response will be coded to the associated label.
 

Supplementary codes

The following supplementary codes are used to code a non-response or where a response is not applicable (for instance, when questions are asking about another person) for sexual orientation:

9 - Not stated or inadequately described
0 - Not applicable or null value.

Coding indexes

Sexual orientation data are usually coded directly to the code structures shown in the table above without the need for coding indexes to interpret and code responses. However, 'Different term' written responses could be considered to determine if any responses should more accurately be coded to 'Straight (heterosexual)', 'Gay or lesbian' or 'Bisexual'.

Scope of variable

The variable of sexual orientation applies to persons in the target age group. For further guidance, see the Discussion on conceptual issues.

Output

Output categories

The standard output categories for sexual orientation are:

  • Heterosexual
  • Gay or lesbian
  • Bisexual
  • Different term
  • Not stated*.

* Coded responses of Don't know and Prefer not to answer are included in the output category Not stated.

The term 'Persons' is used in preference to 'Total' when presenting total population counts for sexual orientation.

Confidentiality, statistical and technical issues may arise at various levels of dissemination if a small number of responses are recorded in any of the output categories. When these issues arise, outputs may be suppressed or combined into other categories. All data collected by the ABS is subject to confidentiality rules where no individual shall be identified and an individual response should not be identifiable. The ABS Privacy Policy outlines how the ABS will handle any personal information provided to us. 

Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification

The cisgender (cis) and trans and gender diverse (trans) classification has been developed in response to the growing requirement for data that adequately and accurately reflects trans people in Australia. This data will be valuable in gaining a stronger understanding of the diverse experiences amongst cis and trans populations, and may help inform support services. The cis experience of gender is defined for persons whose gender is the same as their sex recorded at birth (male or female). The umbrella term trans describes persons whose gender is different to their sex recorded at birth.

Recommended method to derive cis or trans ('two-step method')

Cis and trans population counts are derived through the 'two-step method' of cross-classifying responses to the sex recorded at birth and gender questions. 

The 'two-step method' for deriving cis and trans should not be used with a sex question that asks the person's sex at the time of the survey (e.g. "what is your sex?"), as not all persons would provide the same response to this question as they would to the question "what was your sex recorded at birth?". Trans people asked "what is your sex" would likely answer this question according to their gender identity. 

A question directly asking trans status or including transgender or trans and gender diverse as a response option in a gender question is discouraged. These practices give unreliable statistical results and are unlikely to offer a meaningful population count.

The criterion used to distinguish the derived categories of the cis and trans classification and coding is provided in Table 7.

Download
Table 7. The Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse ('two-step method') Classification and Code Structure
Preferred codeAlternative codeLabelDefinition
1CCisThis category includes persons who have reported that their gender is the same as their sex recorded at birth.
2TTransThis category includes persons who have reported that their gender is different to their sex recorded at birth.
3IInadequately describedThis category includes persons who preferred not to report their gender, or whose sex at birth was neither Male nor Female.

The matrix in Table 8, provides the derivation outcomes for the cis and trans classifications, based upon responses to the sex recorded at birth and gender questions. This process is only valid where sex recorded at birth and gender questions are both included in a survey. Alternative sex questions are not suitable for the 'two-step method' derivation.

Download
Table 8. The Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Derivation Matrix ('two-step method')
Gender question responseSex recorded at birth question response
MaleFemaleAnother Term*
Man or maleCisTransInadequately described
Woman or femaleTransCisInadequately described
Non-binaryTransTransInadequately described
Different termTransTransInadequately described
Prefer not to answerInadequately describedInadequately describedInadequately described

*Responses to the sex recorded at birth question of 'Another term' provides insufficient information to enable accurate derivation of cis or trans. Where a person has preferred not to answer a gender question, an accurate cis or trans derivation is also not possible.
 

Output categories

The standard output categories for cis and trans are:

  • Cis
  • Trans
  • Inadequately described.

The term 'Persons' is used in preference to 'Total' when presenting total population counts for cis and trans.

Confidentiality, statistical and technical issues may arise at various levels of dissemination if a small number of responses are recorded in any of the output categories. When these issues arise, outputs may be suppressed or combined into other categories. All data collected by the ABS is subject to confidentiality rules where no individual shall be identified and an individual response should not be identifiable. The ABS Privacy Policy outlines how the ABS will handle any personal information provided to us.

Post-release changes

29 June 2021:

Text was changed in the following sections:

  • Sex Variable (Output Categories) - corrections to align the 2020 Standard with planned 2021 Census output categories 
  • Sexual Orientation Variable (Classification and coding - Supplementary codes) - the additional words 'or inadequately described' were added to '9 - Not stated or inadequately described'

Glossary

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The glossary contains definitions and information around key terms used in the 2020 Standard. These are not the only ways to define these terms, and the References and Resources section provides links to further sources of information.

Cisgender (Cis)

The cisgender (cis) experience of gender is defined for persons whose gender is the same as the sex that was recorded for them at birth. ‘Cis’ is a Latin term meaning ‘on the same side as'.

Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification

The cisgender (cis) and trans and gender diverse (trans) classification has been developed in response to the growing requirement for data that adequately and accurately reflects trans people in Australia. The recommended process to collect cis and trans population counts is through the 'two-step method'. This involves cross-classifying responses to the sex recorded at birth and gender questions.

The 'two-step method' for deriving cis and trans should not be used with a sex question that asks the person's sex at the time of the survey (e.g. "what is your sex?"), as not all persons would provide the same response to this question as they would to the question "what was your sex recorded at birth?".

Differences/Disorders of Sex Development (DSD)

Differences/Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) is a term used by some people instead of intersex. The term DSD, while contested by intersex rights organisations, is the acronym some intersex people will be most familiar with, and as such is referenced in the 2020 Standard. Users of the 2020 Standard are encouraged to use the terms intersex or variations of sex characteristics, rather than DSD, when discussing the material. 

For further discussion, see the glossary term Variations of sex characteristics.

Gender

Gender is a social and cultural concept. It is about social and cultural identity, expression and experience as a man, woman or non-binary person. Non-binary is an umbrella term describing gender identities that are not exclusively male or female.

Gender includes the following concepts:

  • Gender identity is about who a person feels themself to be
  • Gender expression is the way a person expresses their gender. A person's gender expression may also vary depending on the context, for instance expressing different genders at work and home
  • Gender experience describes a person’s alignment with the gender presumed for them at birth, i.e. a cis experience or a trans experience.

Intersex

Intersex refers to people with innate genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that do not conform to medical norms for female or male bodies. This is also called 'variations of sex characteristics' or 'DSD'.

For further discussion, see the glossary term Variations of sex characteristics.

Non-binary

Non-binary is an umbrella term describing gender identities that are not exclusively male or female.

Sex

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 sex can change over the course of their lifetime and may differ from their sex recorded at birth.  

Sex characteristics

A person’s sex characteristics are their physical sex features, such as their chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs.

Sex recorded at birth

Sex recorded at birth refers to what was initially determined by sex characteristics observed at birth or infancy.

This is an important indicator for statistical analysis in births and deaths, health statistics, calculating fertility rates and deriving counts for cis and trans populations. For further discussion, see the glossary term Cisgender and Trans and Gender Diverse Classification. 

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is an umbrella concept that encapsulates:

  • sexual identity (how a person thinks of their sexuality and the terms they identify with)
  • attraction (sexual interest in another person)
  • behaviour (sexual behaviour). 

It is a subjective view of oneself and can change over the course of their lifetime and in different contexts. An individual could respond differently to questions on either sexual identity, attraction or behaviour.

There are a number of ways in which someone might define their sexual orientation. Common examples include heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.

Trans and gender diverse (trans)

The trans and gender diverse (trans) experience of gender is defined for persons whose gender is different to the sex that was recorded for them at birth.

Variations of sex characteristics (also known as intersex or Differences/Disorders of Sex Development (DSD))

Variations of sex characteristics refers to people with innate genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that do not conform to medical norms for female or male bodies. It refers to a wide spectrum of variations to genitals, hormones, chromosomes and/or reproductive organs.

Other umbrella terms used to describe being born with variations of sex characteristics are intersex or Differences/Disorders of Sex Development (DSD).

References and Resources

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Material referenced in the 2020 Standard, and other useful background material for users of the 2020 Standard, are provided below.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (1999) Demographic Variables, 1999 , ABS archived website, catalogue number 1285.0, accessed 30 October 2020.

ABS (2016) Standard for Sex and Gender Variables, ABS website, accessed 30 October 2020.

ABS (n.d.) ABS privacy, ABS website, accessed 30 October 2020.

AHRC (Australian Human Rights Commission) (2015) Resilient Individuals, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Intersex Rights: National Consultation Report, AHRC website, accessed 30 October 2020.

AHRC (2015) Sex discrimination, AHRC website, accessed 30 October 2020. 

AHRC (2019) About sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status discrimination, AHRC website, accessed 30 October 2020. 

AIFS (Australian Institute of Family Studies) (2019) LGBTIQ+ communities: glossary of common terms, CFCA resource sheet, AIFS website, accessed 30 October 2020. 

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) (n.d.) METeOR Metadata Online Registry, AIHW website, accessed 30 October 2020.

APSC (Australian Public Service Commission) (2018) Lexicon of gender, APSC website, accessed 30 October 2020. 

Attorney-General's Department (2015) Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, Attorney-General's Department website, accessed 30 October 2020.

Australian Government (2020) 'Gender and sexual diversity', Style Guide, Australian Government website, accessed 30 October 2020.

Australian Parliament (2013) Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, Australian Parliament House website, accessed 30 October 2020.

Australian Parliament (2018) Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Australian Parliament House website, accessed 30 October 2020.

IHRA (Intersex Human Rights Australia) (2013) What is intersex?, IHRA website, accessed 30 October 2020. 

OAIC (Office of the Australian Information Commissioner) (2014) Australian Privacy Principles, OAIC website, accessed 30 October 2020.

Previous catalogue number

This release previously used catalogue number 1200.0.55.012.