The Scottish parliament has voted to ask new questions about transgender identity and sexual orientation in the next census, allowing national demographics to chart Scotland’s trans community for the first time.
The census (amendment) (Scotland) bill was passed unanimously on Wednesday evening. The bill, which prepares for the next census in 2021, proposed the new questions should be voluntary, a move that was largely uncontroversial and reflected parallel changes being considered by the House of Lords for the rest of the UK.
However, during scrutiny of the bill, significant concerns were raised about a proposal from the National Records of Scotland (NRS), which is responsible for the census, that the mandatory sex question should include a non-binary response option as well as male and female. This formula was recently rejected by the Office for National Statistics for the next census in England and Wales in favour of maintaining the binary male/female sex question and adding a voluntary question on gender identity for those aged over 16.
There are also ongoing concerns about what guidance should accompany the new questions and whether individuals will be allowed to answer on the basis of lived sex so that, for example, a trans woman can tick the female box in the sex question. Previous census guidance has allowed people to declare their lived sex, but policy analysts and data experts have cautioned that doing so again, or introducing a non-binary sex question, would imperil the reliability of census data.
The NRS says it is still consulting on the guidance, and that the final proposals will be put before Holyrood for agreement before the census takes place.
These anxieties were reflected in a highly critical report by Holyrood’s culture, tourism, Europe and external affairs committee, published in February, which argued that a lack of consultation with women’s groups had led to the publication of legislation that conflated sex and gender identity.
Speaking during the chamber debate, Joan McAlpine, a Scottish National party MSP and convenor of the committee, quoted the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and said that while she believed gender was constructed, she would support the bill “in the spirit of pragmatism and compromise because I accept that for a growing number of people identity is of deep personal significance”.
McAlpine, who has attracted criticism from trans rights activists since her role in the census bill, reiterated her position that the census should ask questions based on biological sex.
Ross Greer, a Scottish Green party MSP, condemned what he described as the false framing of women’s rights versus trans rights. He said many of the fears around the bill were misplaced, and that trans inclusion into other data sets, such as those held by NHS Scotland, had not negatively affected the information. He described the bill as an “opportunity to lift up the voices of Scotland’s most marginalised”.
During the debate, successive speakers called for a more respectful tone to discussions around sex and gender, and condemned threats and violence against women.
A number of MSPs referred to the events at Edinburgh University last week, when the campaigner Julie Bindel was left shaken after a trans activist verbally abused and lunged at her.
Bindel has previously criticised proposed changes to transgender rights, arguing they will have a negative impact on those accessing women-only services.
Others referred to the motion lodged earlier in the week by the Scottish Labour MSP Jenny Marra, which states “there is no place for violence or threats of violence towards women engaging in public life in Scotland”, and which has attracted cross-party support.
Trans people and their supporters, meanwhile, gathered outside Holyrood to call on MSPs to accelerate the pace of change on transgender rights.
While welcoming the census bill, James Morton, the manager of the Scottish Trans Alliance, warned that changes to the Gender Recognition Act, promised in the Scottish National party’s 2016 manifesto, had been “dragging on too long”.
Morton said the total number of trans men, trans women and non-binary trans people living in Scotland made up fewer than 0.6% of the population, and would not affect the quality of census data analysis.
He added: “All trans women and trans men have always been allowed to answer the census compulsory sex question with the sex in which they live and identify, rather than their biological sex at birth. This must continue to be the case.”