The British public are not bitterly polarised over trans equality, according to new research, which found a majority agreed schools should talk to pupils about transgender issues and that one in four knows a trans person personally.
Thought to be the most in-depth UK study to date of public attitudes to what has become a notoriously toxic discourse in politics and on social media, the report from More in Common identifies a radically different attitude among ordinary people, who approach issues of gender identity from a position of compassion and fairness, often informed by their own relationships with trans people.
More than 5,000 people surveyed for the thinktank did not see trans issues as a big divide in Britain today, with rows about JK Rowling or the Keira Bell case barely mentioned in focus group discussions held across Scotland, England and Wales. However, people did feel strongly that trans women should not compete against cis women in professional sporting events.
Writing in the Guardian, More in Common’s UK director, Luke Tryl, said the research had uncovered little interest in “the latest ‘gotcha’ trend of posing questions to senior politicians about whether or not women can have penises”.
Tryl instead says he heard stories of “respect for people’s bravery, gratitude that things had got better in recent years, along with frustration about the challenges and discrimination that trans people still face”.
Published on Thursday, the report reveals widespread acceptance that a trans woman is a woman and a trans man is a man, with 46% agreeing, 32% disagreeing, and 22% who don’t know, with agreement highest among younger generations.
Polling showed wide support for openness in education. In contrast to the advice last month of the attorney general, Suella Braverman, that schools do not have to accommodate pupils who want to change gender, there is also broad agreement that schools should support young people exploring their identity.
Almost two-thirds of the public think schools should talk to pupils about trans issues, with 30% agreeing these conversations should happen at primary school and 33% during secondary school. In comparison, 37% felt primary age was appropriate to tell children that some people are gay. There was no indication from the interviews that people were worried that schools, campaigners or charities were “pushing children to transition”, as some critics have suggested.
But the interviews also revealed some concerns about medical treatments for young people who were questioning their gender identity, with the majority believing physical interventions towards transition should not start before the age of 18. While almost half of the public are comfortable with the idea that someone should be able to take hormone blockers under the age of 18, they are much less likely to say the same about cross-sex hormones, and a significant minority believe that gender reassignment surgery should only be available to those aged 21 and over.
While uncovering mainly relaxed and inclusive attitudes, and a desire to approach challenging situations on a case-by-case basis, the report also identified a degree of scepticism about diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, with complaints about “tick-box exercises about what you are and aren’t allowed to say”.
Questions about sports raised the strongest response, with only 19% of those surveyed agreeing that “trans women should be able to participate in women-only sporting events”, compared with 57% who do not agree, and this view holding even for those supportive of full inclusion on other measures.
“The fact that men have physical advantages over women means that for very many people the inclusion of trans women in women-only sports is not fair and will lead to an uneven competition, and in some cases may not be safe,” says the report, warning that this is one area where the public are at risk of becoming polarised.
On single-sex spaces, one of theflash points in the debate around transgender rights, the public were broadly relaxed about the provision of unisex toilets, while the concern that predatory men may abuse access to same-sex spaces did not come up regularly with people more likely to raise anxieties about male hygiene.
It was, however, the case that support for trans women using women’s changing rooms doubled when it was specified they had undergone gender reassignment surgery, rising from 24% to 48%; the same pattern emerged for toilet use, rising from 29% to 53%.
But the report emphasised that people did not primarily see these issues “through a narrow lens of gender identity”, with discussion broadening out to the fact most people do not like communal changing rooms per se, while the minority who were less comfortable with unisex bathrooms were more worried that men tend to be less hygienic than women in communal toilets, rather than about safety.