Lesbians and Gay Men Flirting with/Disengaging from Vital Statistics: Same Sex Relationships and the NZ Census 1971/2001

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Introduction

Lesbians and gay male communities' relationship with the New Zealand Census sounds a somewhat dry topic, but I had a lot of fun writing this paper. Looking at the ways in which the statistical bureaucrats have phrased questions about 'marital status' and relationships between members of families and households over time says much about social change, including our increased acceptance - at least if we live in tidy couples in the same dwelling.

Lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex/takatapui/fa'afine/queer/homosexual/heterosexual/all of the above? The New Zealand Census does not (yet, anyway) have to face the issue of how to phrase questions about sexual Orientation' or 'identity' or 'behaviour'. So far, no such question is asked, although the Managing Editor of Express (an Auckland fortnightly paper) Victor van Wettering, and others, were campaigning when I began writing this article to change things for 2006. But in 1996 and 2001 the only people in our communities to be counted in the Census of Population and Dwellings1 were those who decided to indicate that they were a 'same-sex' couple living together.

How did they do this? Question 19 in (2001), asked us all to list 'all the people who live in the same household as you' (question 16 in 1996 was similar), and included the option 'my partner or de facto, boyfriend or girlfriend'. Nothing there to indicate clearly whether or not this is meant to be inclusive of those of us living with partners, although the wording seems more so than earlier versions such as 'my de facto spouse'. But the help note to question 19 asks: 'My partner is the same sex as me - should I mark 'partner'?' and answers: Yes, If you live with a partner as a gay or lesbian couple, mark 'my partner or de facto, boyfriend or girlfriend'. So those couples living together and accepting the wording lesbian or gay know what they're meant to do - if they read the help notes, which I suspect few do. But some would no doubt want to identify as couples to reflect reality, and perhaps for emotional and/or political reasons.

Of course in the question itself, being part of a 'same-sex couple' does not show up, but the mysterious coding processes of Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) will see it emerge. This occurs because first, question 2 asks us to say (unequivocally!) whether each of us is male or female and, second, the person who fills in the dwelling form has the responsibility of listing the others in the dwelling who are filling in individual forms. Further, that person must state how each other person is related to them, this time with the option 'my wife/husband/partner/de facto'.

Still attending? Putting all that together can yield two men or two women ticking that they are partners. What does SNZ do if one of them ticks partner and the other flatmate has not been revealed! 'Same sex couple' is the term which SNZ uses, often in tables giving comparisons of characteristics of same sex and opposite sex couples. Sometimes there is also a breakdown into female couples and male couples - in this paper I will use the terms lesbian and gay couples. However, how people think of themselves when ticking the box to show they live with a partner and it emerges from the other questions that that partner is the same sex, is unknowable and doubtless highly variable in a postmodern world of fluid, changing identities - and the other groups mentioned early in this paper disappear without trace.

So what matters about all this? Quite a lot, in my view. This paper will examine three aspects of our engagement or otherwise with the New Zealand Census. First, it will look at the arguments over whether we should be involved with the Census and whether we should demand visibility. second, it will look at the changing social construction of relationships within households as evidenced by SNZ through their collection of statistics between 1971 and 2001. Finally, some statistics on same gender/same household partnerships will be presented and discussed for the last two Census years, 1996 being the first one for which they were released. …