Sex and gender in Scotland’s 2021 census

This month has witnessed a rush of interest in the collection of equality and diversity data in Scotland. On 7 February the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee recommended that Scotland’s 2021 census maintain a binary sex question and does not expand the response options to include ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘other’.

Like other identity characteristics, how people understand and experience their sex is not always simple. The concepts of sex and gender are regularly conflated. Your gender is what is presented on your passport or driving license. Your gender determines access to toilets or changing rooms. This conflation of sex and gender is not a mistake as most people experience these identity characteristics as overlapping and intertwined.

Gender is a construct but so is our understanding of sex, sexual orientation, religion and belief, marriage and civil partnerships. There is very little, if anything, that is essential about identity characteristics. What makes someone gay? What makes someone black? What makes someone a woman? Policing of these identities — by focussing on sexual acts, skin colour or biology — fails to acknowledge how identities gain value through the meanings attached to them by society and wider structures of power and inequality that shape this process. It is also misguided to suggest that something ‘constructed’ limits its potential impact on a person’s everyday life.

Debates around changes to the census question risks taking people down a philosophical path fixated on the nature of being and meanings of sex and gender rather than a consideration of how identity characteristics impact on people’s everyday lives. Sadly, this focus can overlook the lives of individuals impacted by changes to, or failure to change, legislation. Recent data from Stonewall Scotland’s LGBT in Scotland — Health Report (2019) notes that 72% of trans people have experienced depression in the past year and 52% have thought of taking their own life. We must always remember that arguments about sex and gender are not simply abstract philosophising but are about the lives of people living in Scotland.

Should the Scottish Parliament choose to introduce a non-binary question on sex in its census it would follow the lead of other countries including India, Nepal and Australia, with New Zealand and Canada also considering changes. Should the Scottish Parliament choose to maintain a binary sex question it enshrines an essentialist understanding of identity for the next decade and sets a dangerous precedent that might spread to institutional understandings other identity characteristics.

Male or female? White or black? Straight or gay? Religious or atheist?

Take a second to imagine a world where bisexuals were excluded from the LGBT+ community for not being ‘gay’ enough or mixed-race people were shunned because they did not neatly fit in anyone racial category. Identities are experienced in complex ways that fail to fit an either/or model. It is therefore odd that the census, a demographic snapshot of Scotland that is still two years in the future, risks describing the nation’s population in a way that already seems behind the times.

Being included in the census is an act of registration and a fight-back against campaign groups who call for the erasure of trans and non-binary identities.

I work with equality and diversity data on staff and students in universities in Scotland and questions asked in the 2011 census are out-of-step with good practice in the sector. The body tasked with collecting higher education data, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, asks staff and students the question ‘What is your sex?’ with the response options ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘other’. HESA’s dataset, used to calculate important metrics such as subject choice and degree attainment, is not contaminated or in any way jeopardised by presenting staff and students with non-binary response options.

Scotland’s census is a mirror for how we see ourselves. Being included in the census is an act of registration and a fight-back against campaign groups who call for the erasure of trans and non-binary identities. The more people feel confident to disclose information about their identity characteristics, the richer datasets become and the better able researchers are to disaggregate data and present an accurate picture of society. The census is also a reflection of who we are as nation: not being counted, or being forced to register yourself in a way that fails to reflect who you are, goes against the efforts of many organisations in Scotland to advance an inclusive culture.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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