On numbers and rights

Numbers of people who fall under different definitions of “trans” are variously expressed as percentages, ratios and absolute numbers – this can make them hard to compare.

A small number

In the debates leading up to the Gender Recognition Act in 2003 the government estimated that there were around 5,000 transsexual adults in the country (80% male). This estimate, undertaken in conjunction with the lobby group Press for Change, was based on passport office, tax and driving licence records.  5,000 people is a prevalence rate of around 10 in 100,000 adults, which is consistent with other studies.

It was envisaged by those proposing the bill that most of the people applying for a GRC would be those having genital surgery to overcome deep psychological discomfort with their body. As one of the main backers of the Gender Recognition Bill in parliament, Lord Filkin said:

“Such people who do not have surgery are few.”

Lord Filkin, 2003

It is hard to know how many people have had genital surgery, but reasonable estimates are a few hundred a year, a few thousand overall in the UK. There are only 10 surgeons in the UK who can undertake these procedures. In 2010 it was reported that the number of reassignment surgeries carried out that year by the NHS was 143. In 2007 Stephen Whittle estimated that around 300 surgeries take place in the UK a year. This would be in line with the 5,000 estimate.

A much larger number

Stonewall define “trans” as “An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.”

Cross dressing involving fetishistic transvestism (sexual arousal) has long been observed mainly by heterosexual men, it has much wider prevalence, and can involve hormone treatment to develop breasts. The government tried to draw a bright line between cross dressing and transition. In their policy the government stated:

“Transsexualism is not transvestitism or cross dressing for sexual thrill, psychological comfort or compulsion” 

UK Government, 2003

Since the Gender Recognition Act came into force the political conception of what “trans” means has become much wider.

“it is likely that transsexual people represent only a small proportion of those who might be considered trans”

EHRC – Trans Research Review

In 2011 GIRES estimated that in the adult population up to 1% ”may be experiencing some degree of gender variance“. They estimate that at some stage, about 0.2% of the population may ‘undergo transition’. This was based on a 2009 in a study funded by the Home Office.

In the run up to the consultation on self-identification in 2018 the government said

“we tentatively estimate that there are approximately 200,000–500,000 trans people in the UK. “

UK Government, 2018

As they explain in the GRA consultation document this was based on the estimate of ‘gender variance’ from GIRES. Other studies suggest similar prevalence for people self identifying as transgender.

Up to July 2019 a total of 5,623 GRCs were issued.  The number of people who have received a GRC is in line with the original estimate of the prevalence of transsexuals, and the likely number of people having surgery.

Equal Rights

The much larger group of people who may ‘self ID’ as transgender are likely to be covered by the Equality Act protection against discrimination and harassment.

Organisations and employers, anticipating self-ID, misunderstanding the Equality Act and trained by Stonewall and other ‘trans rights’ organisations have interpreted this as meaning self declared gender identity overwrites sex. In some cases (such as the law society) they explicitly state that cross-dressers can use opposite sex facilities. The NHS states that people should be allocated to “single sex” wards based on their mode of dress not their anatomy, and people who identify as ‘non-binary’ should be free to choose.

The debate around the gender self ID consultation exposed the issue of the larger number of people identifying as trans, the weak official guidance on how the rights of different people interact in single and separate sex spaces, and of organisations jumping the gun on self-ID.

Human rights are universal, and everyone has equal rights (including people who engage in cross dressing for sexual thrill, psychological comfort or compulsion). The right to autonomy and privacy in your personal life does not depend on surgery or on getting a gender recognition certificate. But nor does it overrule other people’s rights to privacy, autonomy and safety.

The key question, on which the government needs to ensure there is clear guidance, is whether being covered by the broad protection of Section 7 of the Equality Act gives someone the right to use single sex services provided for the opposite sex.

I think the answer is no – service providers can have unambiguous rules based on sex in order to provide single and separate sex services.

Service providers and employers should take reasonable steps to ensure that people with the broad a protected characteristic of “transsexual” are not discriminated against in general (for example by providing a unisex or ‘gender neutral’ alternatives where possible if facilities are sex segregated).

In most cases a service provider will not know whether someone who wishes to use opposite sex facilities (or at least avoid same-sex facilities) is in the tiny group of people who may have surgery or have obtained a GRC, or the far more numerous group who do not. A few people ‘pass’ as members of the opposite sex, but many don’t (and rarely in adulthood without extensive cosmetic surgery and hormones).

Workable rules to protect everybody’s rights cannot depend on the test of ‘passing’. Clear policies and signage about which services and spaces are single sex and which are for either sex can meet the equal rights of everyone, without undermining anyone’s privacy.

[Sources and calculations here]

3 replies on “On numbers and rights”

This is really good Maya and provides the answer to the WEC question of why so few transgender people have a GRC. This kind of research, and other. papers you have written, is just what the WEC seem to be lacking. They seem also unaware of the previous report on Implementing the Equality Act published in 2019, where many of their questions have already been answered.


Excellent report. I believe that the obscurity of information about the trans group is intentional because their capacity to exert pressure (political, economic, media, cultural, etc.) would be affected if the reality were known that they are very small groups (around 0.5%) and yet they compete against 50% of the population, which are women. Greetings from Argentina.


Thanks Maya, this is excellent. I do not think there is enough said publicly about the change in definition of trans. Most of the public do not know and think just of transsexuals. Having looked at the 2003 debate I also do not think that they would have passed this Act in quite this way if they had thought the numbers were much higher than 5000. Keep up the good work.. Sarah


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