A great deal that is problematic or misleading in respect of trans people starts with misunderstanding and an attempt – or an insistence – to narrow definitions of what it means to be trans down to very simple categories. This is ironic, given that the very existence of transness is a challenge to the simplistic world view of gender and sex.
This has the pernicious effect, when it comes to treatment for trans people, of a medical approach that insists that every single trans person wants, or needs, the exact same set of interventions and rejects individuals for treatment if they fail to fit that model of intervention. And it has wider ramifications: in public debate, for instance, there is a widespread and mistaken belief that the moment an individual is identified as trans or “gender diverse” they must immediately be on a fast track to hormones and surgery. It is against this background that hostile discourse around the “transing of children” has emerged.
The irony, of course, is that this is the diametric opposite of what most trans people believe or would want for other people.
It starts with umbrellas…
One way to understand trans numbers is to start with “umbrellas”: campaigners frequently reference the “transgender umbrella”, which is simply their way of saying that there is a wide range of different and diverse people who may count as trans – or gender diverse – to some degree: but these people are far from the same; may, in fact, be as different from one another in their understanding of themselves as any two non-trans people.
Let’s start with some basic terms:
These, as already explained, are just individuals whose sense of gender is at odds with the gender assigned to them at birth or the gender that they might be assumed to lay claim to based on a cursory examination of physical characteristics. In common usage, the term “gender diverse” is almost interchangeable with “transgender”.
The opposite of trans is “cisgender”. This term says no more about an individual than that their sense of gender is not at odds with their assigned gender. It says nothing about whether they accept or reject historic gender roles: nothing at all about how they should live their lives.
This represents a third category when it comes to discussion of gender and sex and includes those whose physical characteristics do not directly align with binary models of sex or gender. Intersex is NOT the same as trans. Check out here for a wider explanation and exploration of intersex and associated issues.
Under the trans umbrella
As you learn more about trans people you will encounter many ways in which people have adapted to their sense of gender over the centuries, from cross-dressing to surgical intervention. You will also encounter many different terms that different groups of trans people have adopted to describe their own experience: trans, gender queer, gender variant, transexual are all modern terms.
Drag queens and kings are sometimes trans, sometimes not.
The most significant divide within the trans community is between:
- binary trans: individuals who identify strongly as male or female and whose identification is at odds with their assigned gender, and
- non-binary trans: individuals who do not identify as male or female. Within non-binary, there are many different modes of expression, which may, for instance include NOT identifying as a specific binary gender, or sometimes identifying as one or other binary gender. Non-binary is explored more fully here.
In both cases, the extent to which an individual is concerned with their gender identity may vary, as may the steps they take to deal with any issues that arise from that identification.
Historically, trans people who wish to change the physical expression of their gender – referred to as transexual – have been regarded as lying at the most extreme end of the binary trans spectrum. However, this ignores the fact that not all trans people seek – or can afford – the same degree of surgical intervention.
Some binary trans people want a degree of intervention but not the full range as dictated by the conventional medical model: many trans men, for instance, seek the removal of breasts, but are content to retain their reproductive capability, at least until they have had children. Some trans women see “gender re-alignment surgery” – which has traditionally been focussed on genitals – as very important. Others are more concerned to correct other body issues, through facial feminisation surgery or re-training their voice to a more feminine register.
It is also not true to suggest that non-binary individuals do NOT seek any medical intervention. Individuals may identify as non-binary but still be happier taking cross-gender hormones or even after some degree of surgical intervention.
What is very clear that the more one attempts to box trans “tribes” into neat categories, the harder they are to pin down. But perhaps that is as much function of the complexity of life as anything else!
Trans: the numbers
It is important to understand the background to “who identifies as trans” and therefore “who counts as trans” before tackling the issue of how many trans folks there are. This, in turn, goes a long way to explaining why it is difficult to put a precise figure to how many trans people there are in the UK population.
It is also at the root of many, many misunderstandings about the implications of the existence of trans people for the wider population. As explained below, the actual number of gender diverse people in the UK may run into many million: however, it would be absolutely misleading to conclude from that that several million trans people are looking to make use of gender specific facilities at variance with those corresponding to their assigned gender.
Back in 2009, when the focus was much more on what might be considered to be “traditional trans” – binary transexual looking for support with transitioning – a study carried out by the Gender Identity Research & Education Society (GIRES) in partnership with the Home Office estimated that somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 individuals experienced some degree of gender variance2.Within that total, the proportion seeking to transition from Male-to-Female (MTF) outnumbered those seeking to transition Female-to-Male (FTM) by a factor of four to one.
Since then, however, a number of key factors have been observed, all of which seem likely to increase that number significantly:
- the availability of information about being trans has increased
- public acceptance of transgender identities has increased: and this has been accompanied by awareness of non-binary identities, which were almost wholly absent from official consideration in the early noughties
- there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people requesting referrals to gender identity clinics
- the proportion of FTM transitioners is now approximately equal to MTF transitioners (which appears to be in line with, or possibly even catching up to trends elsewhere in the world. elsewhere in Europe, for instance, in 2009, the proportion of FTM transitioners was already 50% or slightly higher)
For these reasons, it seems likely that the 2009 figure may be extremely conservative. The Looking at this issue again in 2012, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a technical note that estimates that 1.3% of people in the UK are trans or gender-variant.3
Given the wide variance in estimates, that in turn depend on how trans is defined, levels of support, as well as levels of acceptance, even this is likely to be a significant under-estimate, especially in respect of non-binary and gender diverse identities.
GIRES are engaged in working with the Home Office on an ongoing basis to come up with estimates and in conversation with GIRES in June 2019, we obtained the following estimates:
Overall, the proportion of the UK population that is gender diverse may be as high as 5% – or slightly in excess of 3 million individuals. This aligns with surveys carried out in the Netherlands and Belgium: and is a little higher than a recent survey from Italy4, that revealed (to the surprise of its authors) approximately 1 in 40 young people aged between 18 and 21 identified as gender variant or trans to some degree.
It should be understood that that total includes individuals at every point in the trans spectrum, including those who are at present too afraid to “come out” in public as well as individuals who do not consider themselves to be in need of any form of medical support or intervention other than social.
Within that number, GIRES estimate that perhaps 1% of the UK population (or c. 600,000 individuals) are binary trans, in the sense outlined earlier – and that these are split 50/50 between trans men and trans women.
Again, many/most of these are not “out” – and the majority are unlikely to wish to transition in the conventional sense
Medical Transition (Transexual)
Within that 600,000, approximately 60,000 have sought medical care, and it is believed that some 40,000 individuals have transitioned (MTF or FTM) in the traditional sense of the term. These numbers, too, are subject to a number of significant caveats.
They are best guesses based on the numbers applying for treatment at UK Gender Clinics (GICs): as noted, GICs take a very particular approach to transition and individuals who fail to fit their specific criteria may be refused treatment. These, if they can afford it, may nonetheless go on to obtain treatment through other means: lawfully, accessing gender re-assignment facilities in other countries or even self-medicating with hormones purchased on the internet; or less legitimately, accessing treatments through the dark web or elsewhere.
In addition, GICs take an approach to transition that stresses a specific pathway: but not all individuals want to undergo all procedures. So some binary trans people will transition to the extent that they are comfortable with and then do no more. From an official perspective, it could be argued that they have not “fully” transitioned. From a personal perspective, they have transitioned as far as they are comfortable with transitioning.
In either case, it seems likely that there are in the UK approximately 40,000 binary trans men and women and that these split roughly 15,000/25,000 at present.
Gender Recognition Certificates
Since 2004, when Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs) were first issued, and the end of 2018, some 4,910 GRCs have been issued. Official statistics5 show that these split:
- 3,608 Male-to-Female transitioners
- 1,302 Female-to-Male transitioners
1 – English Isn’t Enough: The Bakla, Two Spirits, and Hijra, Major Julian, Color Bloq, August 2017
2 – Gender Variance in the UK: Prevalence, Incidence, Growth and Geographic Distribution, Reed, B, Rhodes, S, Schofield, P and Wylie, K, GIRES, 2009
3 – Measuring Gender Identity, Equality and Human Rights Commission (2012)
4 –Transgender 1 su 40 Indagine tra i giovani, TGPadova, June 2019
5 –Tribunals and gender recognition certificate statistics quarterly: October to December 2018, Ministry of Justice, March 2019
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