United Kingdom

Census data alone is not enough to map the trans community

The writer is a software developer with the Financial Times graphics team

In 2021, the census asked people in England and Wales an entirely new voluntary question: “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” The results were recently released in what has been an important moment for the UK trans community. Speaking as someone who answered no to that question and wrote down “trans woman” as my gender, there is a palpable sense of hope that this new visibility will enable policymakers to better direct resources and improve access to healthcare. At the same time, questions remain about what it means to be counted by a government that is seen by many in the community as indifferent to us at best, and actively hostile at worst.

Previously, any figure given for the size of the trans community was rather speculative. This is perhaps best typified by a government document from 2018 that literally says “we don’t know” — at the time, the Government Equalities Office estimated a number between 200 and 500,000 people. From the new census data, we know that 93.5 per cent identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, 0.5 per cent answered that they did not — and 6 per cent didn’t answer the optional question at all.

That puts the number at around 262,000 trans and nonbinary people in England and Wales, which, while at the lower end of the most conservative pre-census government estimate, should perhaps be seen more as a floor than a ceiling. Many in the trans community have expressed their surprise at how low the official figure is, and how high the nonresponse rate is. Although a degree of confirmation bias likely plays into these impressions, understanding why members might choose not to be counted is also of utmost importance.

One good case study might be a friend of mine who is a trans woman living in a small town near Leeds. When I asked why she didn’t answer the census question, personal safety factored highly. This is not uncommon. It can be very intimidating to raise your hand when asked if you are trans, particularly in places where there aren’t a lot of trans people. The census data was released at the Middle Layer Super Output Area level (MSOA; or an area comprising on average 7,200 people), each of which, my calculations suggest, had on average 36 trans people. My friend’s area reported less than 15. Over 450 areas had 10 trans respondents or fewer; for trans women, over half of MSOAs counted fewer than five.

While the ONS goes to great lengths to ensure that individual households can’t be identified, the anxiety that trans people in rural communities feel shouldn’t be discounted. And although it’s possible that most trans and nonbinary people live in liberal urban areas such as Newham and Brent (where 1.5 per cent and 1.3 per cent of the respective populations responded that they’re trans or nonbinary), there exists a very real danger of undercounting those who do not. 

Of course, you could compare the gender identity question to the other optional questions in the census. The optional question about religion also drew a 6 per cent nonresponse rate, and the one about sexual identity an even higher one, at 7.5 per cent. It’s possible that the trans population figure is accurate after all (it’s not far off the 0.33 per cent recording by a comparable question in the 2021 Canadian census, for example), and the nonresponse rate is composed entirely of those who didn’t have time to tick a few more boxes.

However, even if that were the case, it’s important to understand the anxiety queer people feel towards data collection, particularly in today’s political environment. Transgender and nonbinary people face a very real threat of violence while simply going about their lives: between 2021 and 2022, the number of hate crimes reported to the police against transgender people rose by over 50 per cent, and Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain study found that two in five trans people surveyed had experienced a hate crime within the last 12 months. Never before have we been more visible, and never have we felt like such a big target. Until this changes, I don’t think anyone will ever really know how many of us there are.


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