Scotland's 2021 Census to have 21 sexual orientation choices for adults

LGBT activists at Glasgow's Pride march earlier this year.
LGBT activists at Glasgow's Pride march earlier this year.
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A new row has broken out over the development of questions for the next Census, with critics accusing the National Records of Scotland of introducing a "bewildering" array of sexual orientations.

For the first time in its 100 year history, the Census in 2021 will ask questions about sexual orientation, but concerns have been raised about the number of potential answers people could give.

The census - which is answered online - will ask if people are straight or heterosexual, gay or lesbian or bisexual, but also gives a box for "other sexual orientation".

If a person clicks on that box, they can then enter how they identify their sexual orientation, with a predictive text list of 16 other suggestions, including "skoliosexual", "gynephilic", "demi­romantic" and "unsure".

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The NRS said the list had been designed in conjunction with stakeholder groups and was still being tested, but that unless someone clicked the "other" box, they would be unaware of the list.

NRS open to 'ridicule'

But Edinburgh University academic and data expert Dr Kath Murray said the list could damage the data collated, while SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, convener of Holyrood's culture committee which is scrutinising the Census questions, said that the NRS had left itself open to "ridicule".

Dr Murray of the MurrayBlackburnMackenzie policy analysis group said: "A sexual orientation question with overly complex predictive response options, not all of which describe the sex that a person is attracted to, means that less complete information may be collected on the protected characteristic of sexual orientation. For instance, ‘demiromantic’ does not tell us whether a person is gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual."

On Twitter, Ms McAlpine said the Scottish Parliament had unanimously agreed to the voluntary question on sexual orientation, but there had been "no suggestion of “asexual” and “skoliosexual”. This expansion of the definition could undermine the understanding of, and protections for, gay and bisexual people."

She added: "When the committee found out about the 21 questions following an online census demonstration, we wrote to the National Records of Scotland pointing out “sexual orientation” is defined in the Equality Act as gay, straight and bisexual.

"The NRS defends the decision saying it’s what stakeholders want. But the Census team have already been criticised for consulting too narrow a number of user groups, making them vulnerable to policy capture (and in this case, ridicule).

"It's baffling how the NRS chose which groups to listen to. The Sikh community in Scotland are upset at not getting their own ethnic identity box in the Census. They are ignored - but skoliosexuality - without any scrutiny at all - is suddenly mainstream."

Decision for Parliament

A Scottish Conservative spokesman also criticised the move. “Most Scots will think it’s ridiculous to have 21 options under this question, when ‘other’ would have taken care of the vast majority. Clearly the general public wouldn’t even know where to begin with some of these descriptions. People will be baffled.”

While the NRS stress that it will ultimately be the decision of the Scottish Parliament on what to include in the Census, the 21 “other” options which could be selected are androphilic, androsexual, asexual, bicurious, bisexual, demiromantic, demisexual, fluid, gay, gynephilic, gynesexual, homosexual, heterosexual, lesbian, pansexual, polysexual, queer, questioning, skoliosexual, straight and unsure.

But Cara Spence, from LGBT Youth Scotland, and Tim Hopkins, of the Equality Network, defended the options in a letter to Holyrood’s Culture committee. The charities, which helped draw up the list, said an estimated 10-20 per cent of LGBT people did not identify under the main terms.

On Twitter, the Equality Network explained: "The sexual orientation question that was proposed with the Census Bill included an "other" option with a write-in box. People are free to write in the term they use. This question has been used for years and works well; no expansion of definition is proposed.

"We are among the first to speak out against proposals that would reduce sexual orientation equality protections. Not having an "other" write-in box would prevent people who don't use those terms, but others to describe their orientation, from answering the Census question

"Sexual orientation equality doesn't just apply to people who use the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual to describe themselves. Accepting that in no way undermines protections for those who do use those terms, and is part of understanding people's diversity."

A National Records of Scotland spokesperson said: “We have spoken to people across Scotland and have listened to their advice on how to support completion of the voluntary sexual orientation question.

"This includes a free text box which respondents can complete with a description of their choosing, that offers predictive text options. We will evaluate the responses to this question from our ongoing rehearsal data, including whether the predictive text options need refining.

“All proposed census questions are tested with the general public to ensure they are acceptable and well understood. NRS has also engaged with users of census data on the sexual orientation question, including equality groups, women’s groups and local authorities.”

The Census had previously been embroiled in a row over the sex question, and how transgender people should answer it. It was agreed by the Scottish Parliament to also include a voluntary question on trans status for the first time in the Census history, leaving the sex question a binary one of male or female.

However there is still uncertainty about how transgender people will be guided to answer the sex question, with LGBT organisations demanding it should be how transgender people identify, rather than their biological sex.

MSPs will make the final decision on the Census by next summer, and currently people in Dumfries and Galloway, Glasgow and the Western Isles have one week left to take part in the Census rehearsal.

Around 72,000 households in those areas received a letter this month with information about the voluntary rehearsal and details on how to participate. This week they were reminded them that they have until November 7 to complete their Census rehearsal questionnaire.

The UK Office for National Statistics said people in England and Wales would not be given the 21-strong list of suggested options.