Sexual orientation and the Scottish census


For the vast majority of the population, completing the voluntary sexual orientation question in Scotland’s 2021 census will be a breeze. A quick tick in the ‘Straight/Heterosexual’ box before moving on to the next question.

Many who describe themselves as ‘Straight/Heterosexual’ will not be conscious of their sexual orientation nor have faced discrimination, marginalisation or abuse because of this element of their identity. That is why the past week’s media storm, about plans to provide auto-populated response options for respondents who begin to type in the free-text box for ‘Other’ sexual orientation, has highlighted many misunderstandings and half truths about the difficult task of capturing the complexity of human lives and experiences in a single survey question.

Looking elsewhere

The census should not determine or guide how we define ourselves but instead should reflect who we are. However, the ten-year gap between censuses being conducted in the UK means that those designing the questions and response options need to catch-up with developments elsewhere in regard to the collection and analysis of data on identity characteristics.

Sexual orientation census question
The proposed sexual orientation question for Scotland’s 2021 census.

Questions asked in the 2021 census on identity characteristics have all been asked before by other organisations and in other sectors.

Let’s consider population level data from the UK higher education (HE) sector. The Higher Education Statistics Agency annually collects data on the sexual orientation of students and staff in HE. This population level data (it includes all students and staff) is voluntary, there is no requirement for respondents to share this information nor for institutions to ask this question, but response rates continue to increase. For example, in the 2017/18 academic year and among institutions that returned data to HESA, 74.9% of students and 52.1% of staff disclosed their sexual orientation.

What is particularly interesting is that among those who disclosed their sexual orientation, 25,800 students (1.7%) and 1,135 staff (0.6%) described themselves as ‘Other’ meaning neither ‘Heterosexual’, ‘Bisexual’, ‘Gay man’ nor ‘Gay woman/Lesbian’.

In discussions about the capture of data on sexual orientation, we must also remember that Scotland does not exist in a bubble. A diversity of sexual orientations are found across the globe and Scotland is not the first country to grapple with the challenge of how do we quantify people’s sexual orientations in a national census.

Stats NZ, the organisation responsible for the administration of New Zealand’s census, presents a framework for how they define ‘sexual orientation’ in their data collection. For Stats NZ, sexual orientation covers three inter-related elements: sexual attraction (sexual feelings towards one specific sex or gender, to more than one sex or gender, or to no-one), sexual behaviour (whether someone has sexual partners of another sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or refrain from sexual behaviour) and sexual identity (how a person thinks of their own sexuality and which terms they identify with).

This definition is not ideal (for example, it omits romantic attraction or the political dimension of sexual orientation) but it does make clear that someone’s sexual orientation depends on a variety of factors.

What about the Equality Act?

A census has been conducted in Scotland since 1801, whereas the bringing into law of the Equality Act in 2010 is a comparatively recent event. I cannot predict what will happen in the future but the census, in some shape or form, will likely outlive the Equality Act, as how we conceive of identities and their protections in law continues to evolve.

There is no requirement for the questions asked in the census to align with the wording or language used in the Equality Act. A quick review of the 2011 census reminds us that most questions asked in the census have no direct links to the Equality Act. For example, the census asked ‘How do you travel to your place of work or study?’ and ‘What type of central heating do you have in your accommodation?’ These questions provide important data for policymakers but do not align with anything in the Equality Act.

Even when we consider identity characteristics, the 2011 census asked whether a person has caring responsibilities for a family member or friend. Vital information to collect, even though caring responsibilities are not a Protected Characteristic covered in the Equality Act.

Tidy data

These points raise fundamental questions:

Why do we collect this data? Is the ultimate goal of National Records of Scotland (NRS) a neat dataset or an accurate dataset?

If NRS wished to collect tidy data they might ask ‘Do you identify as either White Scottish or Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME)?’ or ‘Are you disabled or non-disabled?’ These questions would totally fail to capture the multitude of differences that lie within these aggregated groups but would help ensure data tidiness.

‘We must depart from a position where minority and marginalised groups are forced to justify their existence to representatives of a normative, majority group.’

A choice between data tidiness and accurately reflecting people’s identities is a false binary — it is possible to do both. This is what NRS are attempting to do with their design of the sexual orientation question for the 2021 census. The provision of an ‘Other’ box is never perfect but it does provide respondents who do not identify with any of the listed options to describe themselves accurately. The provision of suggested options for respondents, who start typing in the free-text box, will maximise the usability of this data as it will enable analysts to group responses and meaningfully evaluate identities returned via this box.

Moving forward

In any discussion about the identity characteristics of minority and marginalised groups we must pause and ask, ‘Is it my place to speak on this issue?’ Straight/Heterosexual people should not be the lone voices in determining what does and does not count as a sexual orientation. We must depart from a position where minority and marginalised groups are forced to justify their existence to representatives of a normative, majority group.

The inclusion of a voluntary question on sexual orientation in Scotland’s 2021 census is a move in the right direction. However, potential dangers lie ahead. In Australia, campaigners are currently fighting against plans to drop the question on sexual orientation from the 2021 census, following a last-minute intervention from a government minister. We must remain vigilant and fight against the spread of misinformation, whether this relates to the reach of the Equality Act or ‘legitimate concerns’ about data robustness, to ensure that progress is not lost.

Published by Kevin Guyan

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

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