It may seem surprising that something as dry as the 10-yearly national Census has become the battleground for a campaign to roll back the rights of trans people in Scotland. But that is where we are.

The fundamental basis of trans rights is that once a person has transitioned from the sex recorded for them at birth, they should be able to live their lives without facing prejudice and discrimination because they were once considered to be a different sex.

This means accepting and treating trans people as their lived, transitioned, sex. The need to do this, to avoid discrimination, and also for trans people’s own health and wellbeing, has been recognised for decades by those working worldwide in trans health. The right for trans women and men (although not yet non-binary people) to be so accepted and treated has been long enshrined in many UK policies and a number of legal judgements.

For example, a trans man or woman can get a passport and a driving licence in their lived sex, and can update their records at public services and elsewhere, so that they can live their lives with dignity, without their trans history being revealed. It is also possible for some of them to get a replacement birth certificate with updated name and sex, for the few purposes where a birth certificate must be provided, but that is a complex and costly legal process, and many don’t do it.

Where does the Census come into this? The Census includes a compulsory question asking each person’s sex. The 0.5% of people who are trans women or men have always been able to answer this with their lived sex, and the guidance for the 2011 Census explicitly confirmed that they could do this.

But now a group of MSPs and others are trying to turn the clock back decades by requiring that trans people answer the 2021 Census sex question with their birth certificate sex, rather than their lived sex. That would run completely counter to the established right to respect for lived sex.

Those campaigning for this change claim that allowing trans men and women to answer the sex question in their lived sex would be a new development. But the 2011 Census guidance told them to do exactly that, and they have long done so in government surveys, employer diversity monitoring, opinion polling, and many other places where a person is asked their sex.

It is also claimed that allowing trans men and women to answer in their lived sex makes the Census data less useful. Eight academics wrote a letter to the Parliament claiming that. But 51 academics then wrote to the Parliament to disagree. As they pointed out, continuing to allow trans women and men to answer with their lived sex will provide data that is consistent with the 2011 Census, consistent with all the other surveys and monitoring done in Scotland, and consistent with the Census in rest of the UK.

There will also be a voluntary question in the 2021 Census asking if you are trans. If trans people have confidence in the Census process, and the sex question respects their lived sex, they are much more likely to answer that. That will give us data about trans people, and will also enable the sex data to be disaggregated into data for trans people, and data for the 99+% who are not trans. The way trans people answer the sex question will of course have no effect on the sex data for non-trans people.

But why is this so important to trans people? After all, it’s only filling in a form, and individual responses are kept secret for 100 years. The answer is that it’s vitally important because it’s clear from the rhetoric of many of those trying to make this change that their campaign won’t stop there. They have also objected to trans peoples’ lived sex being recognised in NHS records, public service equality policies, the education system, and elsewhere. This is a concerted campaign to try to deny that trans people really are the sex they live as. Its aim is to insist that a trans woman is “really” a man who has a weird condition of being trans. That would turn trans rights back decades.

30 years ago we fought against the Thatcher government’s introduction of section 28, which labelled same-sex families as “pretended”. Now we face a similar threat – an attempt to label trans people’s lived sex as not real, as pretended. This is trans people’s section 28 moment, and we must stand up against it.

If we don’t succeed, Scotland will move from being a leader on LGBT equality, to standing (alongside the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro) as a beacon around the world for the rolling back of trans equality.

James Morton, Manager, Scottish Trans Alliance