Article Title:The Invisible Population
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:31st October 2003 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:120
Text:Statistics New Zealand has decided against including a sexual orientation question in the 2006 Census, despite its own commissioned research discovering that the public generally are accepting of the idea. How much longer are we to remain invisible? Despite lobbying from organisations and individuals, and a majority of the general public voicing acceptance in focus groups, Statistics New Zealand has decided against including a question on sexual orientation in the 2006 Census, denying us once again the opportunity for a source of definitive information on the gay, lesbian and bisexual population in New Zealand. Currently, the Census only collects information on same-sex couples who live together, and even then the ambiguous nature of the questions asked (which lumps same-sex couples in the general de facto category) means the usefulness of this data is limited. Community groups and individuals prepared numerous submissions to Statistics New Zealand outlining the necessity for both the inclusion of a sexual orientation question in the Census, and an improvement to the questions regarding same-sex couples. All contained valid reasons why such a question was needed, with perhaps the most important being that the lack of existing information was contributing to discrimination against a segment of the population that is already marginalised. Some existing information, collected through surveys with small, biased samples, has helped to perpetuate stereotypes which have been incredibly damaging over the years - notably the "pink dollar" myth, which has painted gay men and lesbians as a social elite who are not in need of any sort of protection, let alone equal rights. As recently as 1997, Bruce Logan (now a mouthpiece for religious-right front group Maxim) wrote in the Sunday Star-Times: "...[they] generally have higher incomes than the average New Zealander, they are better educated, they go on more holidays and have greater individual spending power. They display none of the characteristics of a repressed minority." Thank you, Bruce. I'll remember that the next time someone screams "faggot" at me from a passing car. Anyhow, recent examinations of figures from the United States Census have discovered that not only do gay couples not earn more than their heterosexual counterparts, in some cases it's up to 28% less. This illustrates how a simple lack of data can be misused, but it also highlights a Catch-22 situation in areas of research. Scientists often write off gay and lesbian studies as unreliable, biased and politically motivated because researchers are forced, in many cases, to use non-random methods in selecting survey respondents. When lobbying governments and health organisations for help on GLB issues, we are faced with not only a lack of data, but a credibility problem with the data that does exist. The Census, with its compulsory response requirement, provides the only access to a definitive cross-section of the population that would yield useful results which would be taken notice of. So what did the public focus groups have to say about this? Some participants didn't like the idea of including a sexual orientation question, of course, but most were accepting, provided that respondents were given the option of not answering, as is the case with the existing "religious affiliation" question. Some believed that finding out the size of New Zealand's gay and lesbian population was a good thing, as it would stop detractors from burying their heads in the sand over sexuality issues, or trying to deny our existence altogether (some rednecks thought that including the question would indeed prove we don't exist). Some felt such a question was best confined to health surveys and the like, but these tended to be people who still thought of homosexuality as a behavioural issue. Gay and lesbian participants in the focus groups were particularly opposed to sexuality questions being confined to health areas, as it implied that there was something wrong with us. Some saw the question as irrelevant or frivolous, but as the NZ AIDS Foundation pointed out in their submission, when roughly 95% of the population shares the same orientation, the topic of different orientations and the needs and problems relating to that is likely to seem invisible to most people, just as "white" New Zealanders don't consider themselves to have an ethnicity. The skew in reactions saw those most in favour of inclusion being young, liberal, and/or gay or lesbian themselves. Those least in favour were generally older, from rural areas, with a religious affiliation, or of a Pacific background. Middle-aged, provincial, Asian and Maori respondents were evenly split. The focus group report, available in full on Statistics New Zealand's website, provides a whole spectrum of opinions on issues surrounding a sexual orientation question being included in the Census, such as invasion of privacy, accuracy of data collection, understanding of the terms involved, and the good old chestnuts of "undermining family values" and "validating abnormal behaviour". Yet the report's conclusion is still that the majority of participants were accepting of the idea of including the question, and the Census was seen generally as the most appropriate medium for asking it - it was often named spontaneously in groups as the most appropriate survey, seeing as it is recognised as the most prominent social survey in this country. Why is the answer still no, then? It would appear the government is, at best, ambivalent about this issue. It is worth noting that not one submission advocating for sexual orientation was received from a government department. Our only hope for the immediate future is that proposed legislation will at least force the Census to improve its questions regarding couples. For example, if the Civil Unions bill is passed, civil unions will have to appear as a tickable option, as do marriage and de facto relationships. Seeing as the proposed civil unions will be open to gay and straight couples, we can only hope that "same-sex civil union" will be specified in the Census question, otherwise we may be back to square one. The next Census is in 2011, and the matter of including a specific sexual orientation question will have to wait until then, at which time there will need to be more lobbyists hopping on the merry-go-round. Statistics New Zealand have at least acknowledged that there is a need for more information on the GLB community, so perhaps they'll listen next time.     Chris Banks - 31st October 2003
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