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Questions of identity

It is being suggested that the 2021 Census could for the first time include a question about our sexuality and gender identity.  We could be offered five options: homosexual or straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or other.

The Office of National Statistics will conduct a trial next year to test how such a question affects the likely responses. The proposed question is relatively modest. In a questionnaire to be used in schools the UK Children’s Commissioner offered 13-18 year olds a choice of 23 different genders. Whilst most of us will not understand that range of options we might recognise that people who genuinely identify as transgender are victims of inequality that is no more acceptable than racial and ethnic injustices.

The census could shape future legislation and public policy and needs to relate to us as we understand ourselves and does not alienate significant groups of citizens by treating them unfairly. This was the motive behind the same-sex marriage legislation that led some Christian MPs to vote for it. Critics objected to that Act on the grounds that it departed from the Judeo-Christian understanding that marriage should be between a man and a woman but its Christian supporters argued that it unjustly discriminated against a significant group of people on the grounds of their sexuality. Until relatively recently perceptions of gender were determined by biological sex but this Census question reverses that, understanding sex  in terms of the individual’s perception of gender. This has practical implications such as which and how many toilets should be provided in schools and public places. A Jersey employment and discrimination tribunal has upheld a claim by a transgender woman against Condor Ferries who have to remove ‘ladies’ and ‘gentleman’ from the toilets on their ferries and replace them with symbols.

What defines our perceptions of identity is clearly changing. Formerly they were rooted in our physical characteristics, ethnicity and nationality, family influences and employment roles. They are developed in childhood and early adulthood but are also influenced by the beliefs and attitudes we develop as we mature. It is no surprise then that this issue comes at a time when 48% say they have no religion. When Archbishop Welby discovered his father was not the man he thought his response was “I know who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes”. A growing minority also identify themselves on a non-genetic basis but without identifying with Jesus Christ.

Individualism plays an important part in this change, freeing people from the straitjacket of social conformity. Globalisation and the ease of international travel and communications weaken the influence of social expectations and the internet enables gender non-conformists to connect with like-minded others. Lots of young people have developed several identities – one recognised by their family and community and the other developed on the internet.  How much does this matter? Does uncertainty about one’s identity have implications for one’s mental health? How does it affect our relationships with family and colleagues at work?

From a Christian perspective an important aspect of identity is that we were created in God’s image. However marred that image is, Christ is at work in believers to restore that image and our challenge is to show the reality of this so that others who don’t know Christ see the evidence in our lives.