Guest post; Implementing the Statistical Standard for Gender Identity: How should Stats NZ ask the question?

Gloria Fraser, Victoria University of Wellington

Statistics New Zealand’s decision to include categories beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ in a new gender identity statistical standard has been hailed as a “world first”. And, unfortunately – it is. We live at a time when an exploding body of research documents the alarmingly high levels of violence and discrimination experienced by trans people, when trans women and girls appear on the cover of Time and National Geographic magazines, and when we are having more conversations around gender neutral bathrooms than ever before. In spite of this, the overwhelming majority of gender identity questions on surveys, healthcare intake forms, and censuses around the world continue to offer just two response options. With this standard (and restrictive) measure of gender identity, it is impossible for trans people to be counted. Nonbinary people are rendered entirely invisible; they cannot select either gender item, so are excluded from reporting their gender at all.

New Zealand Census questions on sex, taken from the 1916, 1986, and 2006 questionnaires. The 2018 Census will likely be the first ever to ask New Zealanders about their gender identity.

The use of a ‘male’/’female’ tick box to measure gender identity is more than just poor methodology; this has serious consequences for the health, wellbeing, and social inclusion of trans people. Without accurate gender identity data it is impossible to establish the size of the trans population in New Zealand. International research estimating the proportion of the population who are trans produces wildly varying results; data from presentations to overseas gender clinics give estimates as low as 4.6 people in 100,000 (perhaps because they ignore that not all trans people present to specialist clinics for gender-affirming healthcare). Another study claims that the number of people falling under the trans ‘umbrella’ may be as many as 1% of the population.

Population size partially determines the amount of funding that is allocated to serving the needs of a particular group. Because most official records do not capture data on trans people, trans New Zealanders are, most likely, receiving far less than their fair share of medical and mental health care. On top of this, with every research survey, census, and demographic form that fails to acknowledge the fluid and non-binary nature of gender identity, the common cultural gender binary is legitimised and reinforced. We need gender identity measures that challenge this binary, ensure all New Zealanders are counted, and give people the opportunity to correctly identify their gender.

It is wonderful that Statistics New Zealand has decided to collect gender identity data, and to ensure that their measures are inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. For the reasons outlined above, the importance of this data cannot be understated. If Statistics New Zealand do this right, New Zealand would be in an absolutely unique position. We would have population-level data about the needs of trans people, which could be linked with health data (e.g., cancer registrations) to generate urgently needed transgender cohort studies.

Statistics New Zealand has not announced how the gender identity question in the 2018 census will be worded, and when I contacted them recently I was told that this decision has not yet been made. The classification of gender identity that has already been released, however, suggests that the direction in which Statistics New Zealand is heading may not be quite what we hoped.

stats nz.png
Statistics New Zealands classification and coding process, released July 2015.

Upon release of the statistical standard, trans community members pointed out that this method of classifiying gender identity is othering – it separates trans and nonbinary people from the cis population. Statistics NZ has also used terminology which is frustrating for many in the community, such as “transgender male to female” and “transgender female to male”. A recently published paper by leading scholars in the field reflects these concerns: Pega and colleagues note that the standard may “obscure some of the complexity within the broader transgender population”, is not intersex inclusive, and does not guarantee that all trans people will be counted. What is to stop a trans woman from identifying as female or wahine, either to avoid othering herself, or because this is a more accurate reflection of her identity than ‘trans’ or ‘gender diverse’?

I do not envy the job of Statistics NZ. Somehow, they must (1) collect data that identifies trans New Zealanders, while (2) not othering trans people. It seems that it is easy to meet one goal, but is it possible to do both? Let’s think through some options.

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Statistics New Zealand’s suggested examples for phrasing gender identity questions.

Personally, I’m a fan of the open-ended box. It allows people to freely self-identify so it isn’t othering, it doesn’t require people to choose between identity labels, and it doesn’t ask people to take on identity labels that might not feel right for them. This question alone, however, doesn’t get around the problem mentioned earlier: if someone writes in “woman”, how do we know if she is cis or trans? We need to face the fact that this matters – if we don’t know this, we can’t count trans people, and we need good data to fight for policy change and funding increases.

The other two options also face this problem – with just one item, we cannot guarantee that we have identified all trans people. On top of this, I seriously doubt there are many people out there who individually identify as “gender diverse” – while this may be a suitable umbrella term, individual identity labels tend to be slightly more specific.

One alternative option, that may meet both goals of (1) collecting data that identifies trans New Zealanders, while (2) not othering trans people, is to ask the question in two steps, by firstly asking about gender identity, and secondly asking about sex documented on a person’s original birth certificate. This way, trans women and men can identify as women and men, while being identifiable as trans because their assigned sex at birth differs from their gender identity. This option is recommended by the Centre of Excellence for Transgender Health.

Because I doubt that Statistics New Zealand has the resources to code open-ended responses from the entire population, the gender identity question would probably be best answered by selecting options from a categorical list. Respondents should be able to select multiple options, so they do not have to choose between, for example, identifying as a woman and identifying as trans. Empirical evidence suggests that these questions are easily understood by the general population, even if some don’t understand what it means to be trans, genderfluid, nonbinary, or agender. An example follows:

  1. How do you identify your gender? Please tick as many as apply.
  • Male
  • Female
  • Transgender
  • Genderfluid
  • Nonbinary
  • Agender
  • Different identity (please state) _________
  1. What sex were you assigned at birth, on your original birth certificate?
  • Male
  • Female
  • Indeterminate
  • No sex listed


As with any measure of gender identity, this measure is not perfect. Perhaps most worryingly, it asks people to disclose their sex assigned at birth, which has potential to be uncomfortable or distressing. Because of this, it will be important for Statistics New Zealand to explain why this information is so crucial to collect. On top of this, it is impossible to construct a complete list of gender identities, meaning that some identities will always be excluded from listed options. Hopefully, the inclusion of an open-ended box will ensure that people of all genders can accurately describe how they identify, and could be an important space for culturally specific identities such as takatāpui, whakawahine, tangata ira tane, fa’afafine, and akava’ine.

Statistics New Zealand may object to these suggestions on the basis that this kind of information is too complex to collect, code, and analyse. In response to this, I argue that it is unacceptable to lump such a diverse group into one umbrella category, as this leaves unexamined the needs within this group. The time has come for the collection of high quality gender identity data, where people of all genders can identify as they wish and be counted. Statistics New Zealand needs to ensure that no New Zealander remains invisible.

Gloria Fraser is a doctoral candidate at the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington. She is particularly interested in the intersection of sex-sexuality-gender diversity and clinical psychology. Her doctoral research focusses on queer experiences of mental health support in Aotearoa. Gloria is also a research coordinator for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS). Gloria has used NZAVS data to develop a gender identity statistical standard for coding open-ended responses. This can be accessed as a technical document via the NZAVS website for use by other researchers.


What to do when I meet a trans person?

Another document written by JJ of Trans on Campus, also taken in to a meeting with Vice Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon this morning.

The first important point is to not panic. A trans person (including all who express gender diversity) is still a human being just one that doesn’t necessarily fit within the normal binary gender expectation of society. One thing to be aware of is that just like everyone is different so is every trans person. There is an enormous amount of gender diversity and we all don’t have to fit into the male/female boxes. Although some trans people do transition between the genders some don’t and transition doesn’t just mean surgery. Of course you are not entitled to know about a specific person’s life history, unless they choose to share it with you.

Some of you may also be wondering “why do I need to worry about this? There can’t be that many trans students?” The big issue with trans people is we don’t really know how many there are. But we do know for example that intersex people are actually more common than redheaded people. A reasonable estimate is that about 1% of people might identify as trans but of course many may want to keep this secret. This document and the work of Trans on Campus is all about trying to make the University a place where people can feel free to express their gender diversity if they wish to.

Therefore here is some useful guidance for you to follow:

  1. Best thing to say first is, “awesome, come be yourself at the University and contact JJ and the others at”.
  2. Ask the trans person their preferred gender pronoun and name and stick to it.
  3. Be aware that trans individuals while under the LGBTI umbrella when it comes to how they are dealt with they do have slightly different needs. Advice can be sought through the Trans on Campus group.
  4. Also contact your Faculty’s Rainbow group and suggest the trans person gets in contact and involved.
  5. Help make others aware who will be in contact with the trans person are aware of this document.
  6. Be aware that the trans person will use sometimes use the toilet for the gender they are expressing. This shouldn’t be an issue as people are grown-ups we shouldn’t worry who is peeing in the stall next to us. Looks and comments making them feel unwelcome or an intruder are unnecessary.
  7. Make sure the trans person is aware of the counselling services that are available at the University.
  8. Do not ask inappropriate questions. For example you wouldn’t ask someone you’ve just met, “have you had a hysterectomy/vasectomy?”
  9. Be prepared to have “low-key conversations” with people that make unwelcome comments or who treat the trans person unfairly.
  10. Most importantly: if in doubt, ask the trans person (in a sensitive way) how they would like to see a situation dealt with!

For Students:

Being a student is an extremely stressful and busy time in a persons life even without the added complications of transitioning or questioning one’s own self. Many trans students will encounter everything from antipathy to hostility from students and staff during their time as students. This is unacceptable and we all need to be working towards an inclusive atmosphere where everyone can be free to be who they want to be without fear of discrimination or attack. Trans students can be especially vulnerable with the assumption from looking around at staff members and other students that they are the minority and possibly not welcome at the University. The “Trans on Campus” group was setup by students to provide a group for them stay in contact with each other and realise they are not alone. Therefore as mentioned above the first thing to do is direct any student to Trans on Campus. Other important things to bear in mind in addition to those above are as follows:

  • Point the student towards the “Change of Name” form (AS-66). Although this is only applicable if a legal name change has been undertaken.
  • Tell the student to update their preferred name in “”.
  • Contact lecturers, tutors and demonstrators for the students courses ensuring that they are away of the preferred name policy of the University and that they stick to it.
  • Ask the student how they feel they are treated, if there are negative comments take these on board and make improvements. This will improve things for the student and also future students!
  • Make sure the student is also aware of Queer space in the city campus if they want a place they can go and study and work.

For a staff member:

Trans staff members may be at a different stage of their life but coming out as trans may be terrifying. The key thing is allay any fears and allow them to be themselves. While the Trans on Campus group was begun mainly as a student initiative there are staff who are members and we are all facing the same problems. A few relevant points to consider:

  • If the person will be lecturing/teaching it is relevant to provide support for them. Possibly considering how best to give them experience teaching to smaller groups before putting them in front of a large stage 1 lecture.
  • Make colleagues aware of the change but only with the consent and consideration of the persons views. It is probably best for them to pass this on with your support rather than you taking preemptive action.

Issues Facing Trans, Intersex, and Gender Variant Students and Staff at the University of Auckland

This is a document written up by JJ of Trans on Campus, taken into a meeting with Vice Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon this morning.

Preferred names

  • Students being referred to by legal name rather than preferred name exposes trans students to harassment, is violation of their privacy and everyone deserves the right to be called by the name they believe that identifies them. Some progress has been made: for example changes to cecil are being implemented but there are still other places where there it is difficult to make such changes or no system exist, for example:
    • teaching staff not being aware of the legal/preferred name problem and making class name lists available to all students.
    • Trans students who graduate prior to legally changing their name will have academic documents that have an incorrect name. A process by which an academic degree certificat can be reprinted after a legal name change to match the name they use would ensure that a qualification from the University of Auckland will not cause a person discrimination later in life. This is especially important for certain professions such as doctors/lawyers.
    • There are also other instances where use of preferred name need to filter through. For example: Univesity Health Service, Councilling Service and Exam Reminders.
    • One final name problem is the unchangeable nature of UPIs for anyone. It can be obvious when a UPI does not match a persons name, in addition there are other instances where this can be a problem, for example a divorcee who change their name.


  • Some advances have been made on this problem. An initial list of genderless toilets has been created and Rainbow groups are adding information to this. However the question remains that there is no clear indication as to whether a trans person is allowed to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. A university wide policy stating that trans students are entitled to use the bathroom of the gender that they identify with would remove confusion.
  • While we can use disabled toilets we are uncomfortable that these are the only facilities that disabled persons can use when we can use others. Repurposing some bathrooms to be gender neutral might be one solution. Along with an awareness campaign so we are able to use gendered toilets.
  • In addition the University of Auckland has only a very small number of gender neutral bathrooms available. This means that students who are intersex or do not identify within the binary gender can be forced to make a decision that may attract harassment. Consideration of including more gender neutral bathrooms in any new university buildings and longer term in existing buildings. At the very least on the ground floor of every building there should be a clearly signposted gender neutral bathroom. We note that some advances have been made on this with current disabled bathrooms being acknowledged to be accessible to trans students.

Staff-Student interaction guidelines

  • The rewritten equity policy is a positive move forwards however we note that it does not cover gender expression or compliance from University members. We are also preparing clearer guidelines that can aid University members on how to interact with trans persons at the University. Along with a clearer process of what a trans person, or someone belonging to other equity groups should do if they feel they are being unfairly discriminated against by a specific individual. The most difficult aspect that trans students and staff do face are the unconscious and conscious biases of other students and staff against persons who don’t conform to the binary gender stereotypes.
  • Some form of public support from senior University managment will also go someway to raising awareness of trans issues and give us more confidence in dealing with issues at the University.
  • There is really no easy solution to this and long term has to be done throughout society but the University has led in other equity matters, such as parental leave and flexible working. Trans on Campus aims to do this by running our own events during Pride week in parallel with main LGBTI group. In addition we hope that the University and faculty will work with us in putting together articles in newsletters and organise workshops to get our message out there. We are also hoping to work with the LGBTI network and rainbow groups to run some poster campaigns on relevant issues.