Data Collection

Scotland’s census sex muddle is bad news for transgender people

if people are allowed to just make up their answers, the data is useless, not only in respect of women, but also when it comes to meeting the needs of transsexuals

What is your sex? It is a simple question and one that we can all surely answer. When it comes to filling out a census, ascertaining a person’s sex is particularly important. Working out the number of men and women living in an area allows for the appropriate provision of public services. But in its approach to conducting Scotland’s census next year, the Scottish government risks undermining this.

Astonishingly, according to guidance published this week, the 2022 Scottish census will allow some respondents to essentially answer what they think best. It says:

‘If you are transgender the answer you give can be different from what is on your birth certificate. You do not need a Gender Recognition Certificate.’

Scotland Census Guidance, 30 August 2021

It’s hard to know where to start with pointing out why this approach is a bad idea. For one thing, ‘transgender’ is a broad and not particularly well-defined term, and there is a danger that this guidance could be interpreted too widely to include a huge range of people. But the problems don’t stop there. The guidance goes on to say:

‘If you are non-binary or you are not sure how to answer, you could use the sex registered on your official documents, such as your passport.’

Scotland Census Guidance, 30 August 2021

‘Not sure how to answer’? If any question in the census is going to be confusing, it is surely not this one. Instead of following this ‘guidance’ – which leaves more questions than answers – those filling out the census should simply write down their sex. We may not be happy to do so – and some of us might have preferred to have been the other sex – but we all have a sex. 

As a science teacher, my response to this shoddy guidance is one of despair. Remember: this is not coming from a fringe organisation, or even a professional lobby group. These are the words published in official guidance on the ‘Scotland’s Census’ website. 

If the Scottish government is truly clueless about this issue, they could have looked south of the border for inspiration. In England, we completed our census earlier this year. A similar attempt had been made to obfuscate the guidance around the sex question, but the campaign group Fair Play for Women argued that it unlawfully allowed ‘self-identification’ as male or female. In the High Court, Mr Justice Swift ruled that the English guidance should be changed to say that those filling out census should only respond with the answer on their birth certificate or gender recognition certificate.

Or perhaps Sturgeon’s administration could listen to the wise words of professor Rosa Freedman, who told a parliamentary committee back in 2018 that

‘Having the mandatory question of, ‘What is your sex?’ with the answer being either male or female would allow for data to be gathered based on biology, and having voluntary questions on gender identity and sexual orientation would allow for data to be gathered on vulnerable groups.’ [my emphasis]

Rosa Freedman

Here Freedman hits the nail on the head. After all, if people are allowed to just make up their answers, the data is useless, not only in respect of women, but also when it comes to meeting the needs of transsexuals.

In England, information on transgender identity was collected separately. Question 27 was voluntary, and asked: 

‘Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?’

England Census 2021, Question 27

This type of question allows for trans people like me to be represented, while also ensuring that the ‘sex question’ was not rendered meaningless. Yet the Scottish Census – in taking a different approach – risks undermining both of these things. 

Does the SNP care what trans people like me think? It would seem not. Angus Robertson said the guidance ‘provides welcome clarity for people filling in the census and supports participation by enabling all people across Scotland to complete the census next year.’ 

For some time now, Sturgeon’s government has been on an ideological mission to prioritise virtue signalling in the trans debate. While proposals to introduce self-identification of legal gender have been shelved at Westminster, the issue is still live in Scotland. Following the power sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens, Sturgeon’s government has committed to introduce a bill to reform the Gender Recognition Act in the first year of the parliamentary  session.

Patrick Harvie, co leader of the Scottish Greens and set to become a minister in Sturgeon’s government, is clear what he thinks: Trans men are men. Trans women are women. Non-binary identities are valid. Billionaires shouldn’t exist.’

Good luck with that, Scotland. But without the right data on sex, how can we know that transwomen are not transmen, and women are not men? This is a nonsense, and a UK administration should not be pandering to it.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 2 September 2021: Scotland’s census sex muddle is bad news for transgender people.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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