There is a lot to discuss about today’s Sunday Times front page on the dropping of some planned reforms to the Gender Recognition Act – not least questions about its accuracy in the absence of any confirmation from the Government.
But, as Stonewall’s new Chief Executive, and one with a penchant for data, one thing (among many) that I want to unpick from this story is the idea that the Government may be planning to – and again this hasn’t been confirmed - disregard the results of its own public consultation. The Times report says:
‘More than 100,000 responses were received to the consultation. Insiders say that about 70% of those backed the idea that anyone should be able to declare that they are a woman or a man. However, officials believe the results were skewed by an avalanche of responders generated by trans rights groups’
So, what about that 70%? Did organisations like Stonewall and our allies really create an avalanche of responses that left the results skewed?
I’m going to try and explain why, despite the fact that public attitudes to trans people are mixed overall, they are by no means inconsistent with a picture where amongst the 100,000 people and organisations who cared enough to respond to the GRA consultation, 70% were in favour of making it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. I’m going to do it using data from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, because it is without a doubt, the highest quality available data on the general public’s views of LGBT+ people and relationships (full disclosure: I helped write and edit the report I’m referencing in a previous role).
The first thing to note from the BSA data is that the public do not like to see themselves as being transphobic – 83% say they are “not prejudiced at all” towards transgender people, compared with just 15% who describe themselves as “very” or “a little” prejudiced’’.
What does this tell us? Well – it tells us people don’t think being prejudiced against trans people is a desirable characteristic, and that proud transphobes are a minority group.
About half of us (49%) think prejudice against trans people is “always” wrong, compared with just 6% who feel it is “rarely” or “never” wrong. A third (34%) have more mixed feelings and say prejudice against trans people is only “mostly” or “sometimes” wrong.
So, the majority of us don’t want to be seen as transphobic, but when it comes to prejudice against trans people in our society we are less clear that it is always a bad thing.
A good example of how this plays out in practice can be seen in some older BSA data, where despite an overwhelming majority describing themselves as ‘not at all prejudiced’, just four in ten supported the idea that a suitably qualified trans person “definitely should” be employed as a police officer or primary school teacher (43% and 41% respectively).
And this isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, what we can see happening for trans people now is very similar to how many people would have seen lesbians like me a few years back: we don’t actively hate you, but we don’t really want you teaching our children.
And while I’m using ‘us’ and ‘we’ here a lot here to talk about the British people, there are some really important differences in how people respond to these questions based on other things about them. In line with other public attitudes (to lesbian and gay relationships, to abortion, to sex outside of marriage), some groups have more socially liberal views about trans people. Who are they? Well, younger people, non-religious people and people with higher level educational qualifications are all more likely to have positive views of trans people.
Oh, and women. Yes, women are more likely to have positive views of trans people. This is neatly illustrated in the earlier data, where 72% of women said that they were “very” or “quite comfortable” sharing a toilet with a trans woman, compared to 64% of men who were “very” or “quite comfortable” sharing toilets with trans men. Let’s just sit with that one for a minute shall we? The current narrative of ‘women feel threatened by trans rights’ that is the cornerstone of anti-trans rights campaigns, simply doesn’t stack up with the evidence we have.
So, this is the bigger picture, backed up by solid data, that we are having these hard, heated and often deeply toxic conversations within. Transphobia isn’t popular with the public (even though sometimes members of the public can be transphobic). And half (49%) of the public feel that prejudice against transgender people is always wrong.
Of course, trans-inclusive organisations like Stonewall encouraged that half to respond to the Government’s consultation, just as anti-trans organisations encouraged the 6% who think that prejudice against trans people is ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ wrong to put pen to paper.
But if this story is an accurate leak of current plans, and the Government is assuming that the consultation responses are seriously out of step with public opinion, then it might want to take a long hard look at the data first.