Non-binary genders need more visibility in India’s Census 2021

Separating sex and gender in the country’s biggest socioeconomic survey is imperative

By Anuj Behal
Published: Monday 06 September 2021

India’s 2011 Census was the first census in its history to incorporate the number of ‘trans’ population of the country. The report estimated that 4.8 million Indians identified as transgender. 

The survey provides sex-related data in a binary male / female format, tagging the rest as ‘other’ and further assuming them to be ‘trans’. Those with transgender, intersex and other non-binary identities in their true forms, therefore, are excluded from the representation.

The ‘other’ head in population count was merely tokenism. A person, who indentifies as neither male or female (sex associated at birth) and chooses to express as different from the binary set, can choose this option. 

Non-binary is a diverse term of expression. For example, transgender, intersex people, agender, gender fluid, demigender, mulitigender and others could all term themselves as non-binary. 

A non-binary person may feel that their gender identity and experience include aspects of binaries or none at all. Some people may also view their identity and experience as fluid or ever-changing.

In literal terms, transgender refers to someone who does not identify with their sex assigned at birth. Some people who are non-binary identify as transgender, but others may still identify with their sex assigned at birth to a degree. 

Hence it should be clear that transgender and non-binary are different sets of identities but can also coincide for some people.

Transgender is an umbrella term that includes transmen and transwomen. The stigma around both is evident but the challenges they face in accessing public infrastructure could vary. 

Toilets, for instance, are battlefields for transgender rights. Transgender people often face inadequate access to public toilets since the existing infrastructures mostly only recognise ‘male’ and ‘female’. 

There are not enough dedicated or gender-neutral toilets. In 2017, the Centre issued guidelines under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin), making it mandatory for transgender people to be allowed into public toilets designated for both men and women, depending on their choice. 

But transwomen and transmen both still face different problems accessing toilets according to their choice. Transgender men who have not undergone phalloplasty are unable to access men’s toilets that lack private stalls. Transwomen, on the other hand, are often bullied or denied access to toilets meant for women. 

An adequate amount of information is required for providing solutions that suit the interest of every sub-group. Simply data on ‘others’ won’t work for India’s biggest socioeconomic survey.

Sex is biologically determined but gender is a social construct. Data collection has been sex-focused and not gender-focused so far, according to a 2020 report by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), India for the Big Data for Development Network. It mentioned: 

Gender-disaggregated data does not reflect the reality of all gender minorities and cannot be used to make development decisions, especially for the inclusion of transgender and intersex persons, who are often misrepresented or absent in this data.

The lack of representation also creates a scarcity of information on how many intersex people live with their families, percentage of trans people who are homeless, their education and employment structures, types of housing they live in, migration rates, among others. 

Denied visibility in official data, millions of transgender Indians can’t access social benefits. Hence, collecting gender-based information correctly can help better inclusion of marginalised genders and identities in society.

Separating sex and gender

The solution to such an ambiguous process of data collection is to follow a non-binary approach to data with a clear separation between gender and sexualities. First, the respective options for gender could be man, woman, transman, transwoman, non-binary or other. This will give much more clear information as compared to before.

The existing used terminologies in the Census: Male and female (which stands for sex) also need to be redressed and replaced with terminologies like man, woman (which stands for gender).

Also, during the 2011 Census, much of the population was not even aware of this third category in options to gender. Hence, this expected population of 480,000 is amazingly less than the actual population in the country. 

Delhi, for instance, alone had 30,000 hijras (transwomen) in 2005, according to the All India Hijra Kalyan Sabha in 2005. This contradicts the 2011 Census data which mentioned that Delhi has  4,213 trans people. 

Hence, an awareness campaign by the survey authorities could be conducted. This will end the ambiguity of the process followed in 2011.

The census should also include a ‘doesn’t want to disclose’ category for those who don’t want to associate with any gender trait or doesn’t want to divulge gender information. This could be the people who don’t want any benefits associated with any gender trait.

Also, Census is an important survey that acts as a reference for many other surveys in the country. Hence, most other official data sources continue to collect and provide data in a binary format, excluding transgender and intersex persons. This change in census, hence, can act as a reference for any such resource groups.

This ultimate adaptation of considering gender minorities in Census count can clearly make a difference to a community that struggles daily for visibility and existence. It's high time we started seeing gender as a spectrum rather than just a set of binary traits. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth. 

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