Making Sense Of The “Census Boycott”

4 min readMar 6, 2023
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

An awful lot has happened since the last census in 2018. A whole global pandemic, most of the Ardern premiership, the Blues have become good at rugby as the All Blacks lost their grip on the world cup. If you remember, the last census was a bit of a disaster — the switch to digital-first responses dropped the participation rate, and the whole point of a census is that as many people as possible participate. It gives us a good idea about who is in Aotearoa, what their lives are like, and what their needs are. Big decisions can be made from census data, participation is an act of civic duty.

This census will not be as digitally focused, but will also for the first time ask questions about gender identity and variations of sex characteristics. For most people, this will mean absolutely nothing, there’ll just be a few boxes on a form that they don’t have to tick. Unfortunately for some people, the addition of these extra boxes that they do not have to tick is cause for outrage.

I completed my form today. It asked what my gender was. Options were Male, Female or Another Gender — with participants able to specify their gender. I ticked Male. That’s me. Then it asked my sex at birth, with the options of Male or Female. I ticked Male. That’s me again. Then I moved on, because as I am not transgender, non-binary or intersex, the other options aren’t for me. Later there was a question about if I was born with a variation of sex characteristics. No, not me. Move on, answer the question about how many cigarettes I smoke. Whole thing took about 5 minutes.

The noted anti-transgender lobby group Speak Up For Women has advocated for a boycott of the census because of these questions. They’ve been in the media the last few weeks as census forms go out. They were also in the media when the decision to include these questions was reached two years ago. Apparently the extra few questions are too confusing, despite me outlining their precise nature and wording in the previous column.

It’s not the first time groups like SUFW have had issues with data. They complained about the Human Rights Commissions PRISM report, which explored how to resolve human rights issues “relating to people with a diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics in Aotearoa New Zealand”. They claimed the work misrepresented both New Zealand and international law, and demanded it be recalled. The HRC, graciously responded by telling them “No” and very politely highlighting everything they had got wrong in their complaint.

The issue at stake here is data. Unfortunately, some people in Aotearoa and overseas, have bought into a manufactured and baseless claim that “transgenderism” is a fad, that it needs to be eradicated. The false idea that trans people are simply a product of a decadent and wealthy white western society, that they turned up in the last decade and that it will, aided by the sort of horrendous anti-trans healthcare laws currently in process in some U.S states, eventually disappear. There’s no reason to collect this data because transgender people don’t actually count. If that sounds horrendous, it’s because it is. It’s the rhetoric of extermination, of fascism.

What underlies the attempt to boycott the census, or to somehow skew the results of the question on gender identity and sex assigned at birth, is the fear that getting good quality data about the number of trans, non-binary, and intersex people in Aotearoa will prove what anyone in the LGBTQI community could tell you: trans people have always been here, and they exist in every ethnic group and economic class, across every age group and in communities large and small across the country.

Much like their attempts to prevent trans people from being able to update documentation, or advocating for trans conversion therapy not to be banned, the campaign to boycott the census is quite simply an attempt to exclude transgender and non-binary people in Aotearoa from being counted as a whole entire person in our society. For many of these people, 2023 is the first census of their entire life where they will be fully counted as a person, and their existence will contribute towards the decision-making around demographics. That is something to be celebrated.




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