Dr Peter Graham had been filling in Census forms for years – and then one day he realised what he wasn’t writing down.
“It dawned on me suddenly, that there was no space for gender identity or sexual orientation – and therefore, the Census doesn’t recognise the lived realities and identities of a lot of people in the LGBT+ community,” says the Assistant Professor at the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Business, Government and Law.
Held every five years, the Australian Census collects key data on every person in the country, according to where they live.
While Australia is widely recognised as one of the most LGBT+-friendly countries in the world, this lack of official recognition for the LGBT+ community isn’t a new phenomenon – and it’s a dissonant chord in a largely progressive melody.
“Before the country’s Marriage Act 1961 was updated in 2017 to legalise and recognise marriage equality, Federal law only recognised same sex couples in de facto relationships from 2009,” says Peter.
“In the 2016 Census, same sex couples could declare that they were living together – but it didn’t take into account people who were in a relationship but not living under the same roof, and so that was only capturing part of the story.”
Peter feels that including more diversity on the Census would go a long way towards reflecting a more accurate lived reality and positively affecting community wellbeing – because if key data on a significant segment of the population isn’t being gathered, it is also not feeding into and informing services.
“When it comes to services like healthcare and aged care, needs can be very different among different groups,” Peter says. He cites a recent Canberra Times article that highlighted the growing evidence that women who identify as LGBT+ often have distinct healthcare needs as an example of how limited data can be a stumbling block to the effectiveness of services.
Greater diversity can also help to create a more progressive society, in which those who sit on the fringes of the majority can own their differences but needn’t feel alone in doing so.
“In 1989, MP Bob Katter claimed there were almost no gay people in North Queensland,” says Peter. “Now how would you feel if you had been living there at the time, and identified as LGBT+? Very alone, I would imagine.”
In many areas of rural and regional Australia today, there’s still very poor visibility for the LGBT+ community, which can lead to these feelings of isolation, and discrimination.
Living in regional NSW himself, Peter has noticed the difference in attitudes of openness and acceptance.
“In these communities, people who identify as LGBT+ can be very hidden, and that means there’s always an undercurrent of fear in what you do,” he says.
“It could mean going a little further to do your shopping, or being careful about how you word things when you buy your wedding cake – but I’d like to be able to be myself, to not second guess what I’m about to say or do.
“Less than a year ago, I went to change my vehicle registration into my husband’s name in our town,” says Peter. “There was an older man at the Roads and Traffic Authority counter, and he just wouldn’t believe we were married. He kept saying it wasn’t a real marriage, and accused me of trying to pull a fast one to evade stamp duty!”
It was a loud and public spectacle – and ended with Peter getting the registration changed, but not before he’d been thoroughly embarrassed. He felt like he’d been outed – against his will – in his own community.
“I went to the local Member’s office to talk to someone about it, and they asked if I wanted sanctions or something – I said no, I wanted sensitivity training for service providers,” Peter says.
“I don’t want other people to feel like I did. These kinds of assumptions need to be checked, and actual numbers in a Census – which could show, for instance, that hundreds of LGBT+ people live in an area – would help to shift those assumptions.”
Peter acknowledges that some might have concerns over privacy but says what is important is making the options available, and then allowing people to choose.
“I’d like to stand up and be counted – officially,” says Peter. “I’d like that for our whole community, so that no one would feel alone, or like they have to hide. The reality is that we’re here, and the Census should be about reality.”
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photo by Madeleine Wood