The truth about trans
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'Some People Are Trans. Get Over It!' placard at Pride in London 2016 © Andy Tyler

The truth about trans

A Q&A for people who are hungry for real info.

If you read a newspaper, go on the internet, or turn on the TV, you may well have seen some shocking headlines about trans people lately.

It’s fine if you don’t feel like you know very much about trans people – lots of people don’t. But it’s important to know that some myths and misconceptions are repeated consistently in the media, and this makes it harder to discover the truth when it comes to some of these issues.

We’ve developed this Q&A to answer some of the common questions about trans people, and to tackle some of those myths and misconceptions you might have seen.

If you find this information useful, why not sign up to our newsletter? We’ll keep you up to date on all of our work, and let you know what you can do to help make life better for all LGBTQ+ people.

How many trans people are there in Britain at the moment?

We don’t know. There isn’t an accurate figure for how big the trans community is. There were no questions about trans identity in the census until this year, and we’re awaiting those results. There also isn’t any existing research that covers enough people to be statistically significant.

The best estimate at the moment is that around 1% of the population might identify as trans, including people who identify as non-binary. That would mean about 600,000 trans and non-binary people in Britain, out of a population of over 60 million.

How does a person know they are trans?

Many people know they’re trans from a young age. Some trans people might not have the language or understanding of what it means to be trans until later in life. Other trans people do not know until they are teenagers or adults. There is no right or wrong way to be trans, but what is clear is that it’s not something that’s a fad or a 'lifestyle choice' and that all trans people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. If you aren’t recognised as being the gender you know you are, it’s extremely damaging.

If you are questioning or exploring your gender you can speak confidentially to MindLine Trans+, LGBT Switchboard or search for support in your area via TransUnite.

What’s the situation like for trans people in the UK at the moment?

Trans people in the UK face huge levels of abuse and inequality. In 2018 our research found that two in five trans people have had a hate crime committed against them in the last year, two in five trans young people had attempted suicide and one in eight trans people had been physically attacked by colleagues or customers at work. More recent research from Galop found that in 2020 four in five trans people had experienced a hate crime in the previous 12 months. This shows a worrying increase in transphobic violence and abuse.

In 2017, a trans woman from the UK was even granted residency in New Zealand on exceptional humanitarian grounds, after a tribunal ruled it would be ‘unduly harsh’ to force to return her to the UK, where she had suffered years of transphobic discrimination and abuse. Transphobia is something we all need to care about, take seriously and work to tackle in whatever way we can – whether that’s at work, at school or in our communities. 

That said, these stats only tell one part of the story. Being trans in no way means you’re going to have a bad life – trans people around the UK have rich, rewarding lives, careers, families and relationships, just like any other group of people. Being trans is not what causes trans people harm and distress, transphobia is.

What process do you have to go through to be recognised as trans in daily life?

In most cases, you don’t need to go through any legal or formal process. Transition can be any steps you take to express your gender identity, such as changing your pronouns. The Equality Act 2010 protects anyone proposing to undergo, is undergoing, or has undergone a process of ‘reassigning their sex’ from discrimination based on ‘gender reassignment’. You do not have to have taken any medical steps in your transition in order to be protected by this legislation. You can use the bathroom that fits your gender, expect your employers to recognise your gender, and access gender-specific public services.

To update your gender on a passport and driving licence most people will just need a note from a doctor. That’s what’s so frustrating about some of the current media debate – many of the trans rights discussions happening now are about things already established and protected by law.

One thing that causes a lot of difficulty and pain for some trans people is getting the gender on their birth certificate changed. This process is something that’s governed by the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The Government (England & Wales) held a public consultation into reforming the Act in 2018 and published their response in 2020. The majority of feedback supported full reform, including de-medicalisation, non-binary recognition, and a simplified, cost-free process for obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate. In spite of this, the Government decided only to reduce the fee for applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate, and to move the application process online. You can read Stonewall’s response here.

Non-binary people aren’t currently recognised in legislation. Among other things, this means they must choose between ‘male’ and ‘female’ on official documents like passports and driving licences. However, a positive 2020 Employment Tribunal ruling stated that non-binary and genderfluid people could be protected from discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act. This judgment will be key in supporting future judicial decisions.

What is a Gender Recognition Certificate and how do you get one?

A Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) is a document that allows some trans men and trans women to have the right gender on their birth certificate. This can make life easier when it comes to things like getting married, or having your death recorded respectfully.

The process of getting a GRC is controlled by the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004. It’s very outdated, and is a stressful, dehumanising and traumatic process for most trans people to go through.

Currently, in order to get a GRC, trans people have to get a medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’. Often this will be from a Gender Identity Clinic, and the current waiting times for a first appointment vary between 1-5 years. Trans people also have to show they have lived in their ‘acquired gender’ for a minimum of two years, gathering evidence such as letters addressed to them and photos of themselves at events, to try to convince a panel of people who they will never meet that they are trans. In England and Wales, if they’re married, the individual also needs the consent of their spouse before they can proceed. This can leave trans people trapped in abusive or controlling situations.

The Government ran a public consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, which closed on 19 October 2019. Tens of thousands of people get involved, with the vast majority of respondents supporting a demedicalised process so that trans people would not need a psychiatrist to diagnose them with gender dysphoria. Despite this, the Government made very few changes to the GRC process. Previously, applying for a GRC cost £140. In 2021, this fee was reduced to £5, and the application process has moved online. But the process remains medicalised and dehumanising for trans people, who still have to ‘prove’ that they are who they say they are.

What’s wrong with this process?

A lot: it’s secretive, discriminatory, and it's medicalised. It can also take several years to go through and involves a lot of bureaucracy and medical assessments – which are costly for those who can go private, and have waiting lists of several years for those who go through the NHS system. It also only allows for people to switch from one binary gender to the other – male to female or vice versa – which means it doesn’t work at all for non-binary people who don’t identify as either.

The whole process is so traumatic and demeaning that many trans people simply can’t face it. There’s no need for it to be this way. Lots of other countries, including Ireland, have already reformed this process and (at the time of writing) the world hasn’t collapsed around them.

Being able to get a Gender Recognition Certificate matters: it means you can have a birth certificate with the right gender on it. While a trans person can access services and have ID that reflects their gender without a GRC, having a GRC is important for major life events such as marriage – so that your marriage certificate can reflect who you are.

The findings from the UK Government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act can be found here and Stonewall’s statement on the disappointing lack of action from the Government on the results can be found here.

Do you need to have gender reassignment surgery (a 'sex change operation') to be trans?

You do not need to have had any surgery or medical intervention to be trans. A lot of media coverage is focused on trans people’s body parts and surgical procedures, which is invasive and dehumanising.

For some trans people, having surgery to relieve dysphoria or create gender euphoria is an important part of their transition. Getting access to surgery has become increasingly difficult in recent years, with NHS waiting lists growing longer and Covid-19 compounding the existing delays. More investment is desperately needed so that trans people can get the procedures they need. Our TRANSforming Futures: Healthcare report details the experiences of trans people across the UK, and their experiences with accessing healthcare.

For other trans people, surgery isn’t something they want or need to feel happy with their body. It’s the same with hormones, like testosterone and oestrogen treatments. It’s important to remember that being trans isn’t about having a particular appearance or particular body parts. It’s something that’s absolutely core to a trans person’s identity and doesn’t alter – whatever their outward appearance might be.

Transition means different things for each person: there is no one single ‘gender reassignment operation’ and no end goal to transition beyond what the individual wants.

And, frankly, it’s no one else’s business what kind of treatment a trans person has or doesn’t have. If you wouldn’t ask a cisgender person what’s under their clothes, why would it be appropriate to ask a trans person?

Does teachers and doctors talking about trans issues more make children and young people think they are trans when they aren’t?

No. Over 30 years ago, Section 28 was introduced to prevent schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ because there were fears that children would ‘turn gay’ if they learned about lesbian, gay and bi people. While this might seem ridiculous to many of us now, we’re currently seeing very similar conversations happening around teaching kids about trans people in school.

The fact that teachers, doctors, families and caregivers are talking about gender more is a good thing. It means that children are more empowered and more able to explore their identity as they grow up, as well as helping them understand and celebrate difference in others. 

All children and young people deserve the right to be happy and to be themselves. When young people access support, they’re looking for exactly that: support. They want someone to talk things through with, someone who can understand their thoughts and feelings, and help them to have similar conversations with others around them. Those who do explore their identity and realise they are trans deserve love, support and age-appropriate care.

Should under 18s be able to transition?

Every trans person’s transition is individual. For some, it will involve purely social steps, such as changing their name or pronouns. For others, transitioning may also include medical steps – meaning hormone blockers or hormone therapy. Under 18s cannot access surgery within the UK.

Research (1, 2, 3) shows that allowing trans young people to explore their gender identity, and using their chosen pronouns, can greatly reduce the risk of suicide and mental distress.

When it comes to medical transition, some children and young people may not want or require any medical support. Some may choose to wait before making decisions about future medical care. For some young people who are certain about who they are, and who may become increasingly distressed by changes in their body as they get older, medical treatment can be the right course of action.

In the UK, after assessment, this can involve being prescribed puberty blockers. This gives young people time and space to work out what is right for them, without the distress of the heightened dysphoria that puberty can bring on. It can also help those who know for sure that they do not want to experience the puberty that will occur for them without intervention. From 16 onwards, after further assessment, this can include cross-sex hormones (such as oestrogen or testosterone). In the UK, only adults (over 18s) can access gender-affirming surgery.

It’s important to note that, contrary to narratives that young people are being ‘fast-tracked’ into medical transition, waiting lists for these services are now over two years long – leaving young people and their families without any support. These waiting lists must be tackled urgently.

It is important that the wellbeing, rights, and wishes of the young person are at the centre of any decisions made. What is right for one young person may be different to what is right for another.

Is trans healthcare a form of conversion therapy for gay people?

In short: no. Conversion therapy is a practice where the end goal is to stop someone being who they are. Good therapy supports the patients to explore their identity and supports them regardless of the answers they find.

This question also assumes that a person can be trans or lesbian, gay, bi, etc. But sexual orientation (who you are attracted to) is unrelated to gender identity (who you are). The UK Government's National LGBT Survey shows that only 9.4% of trans people identify as straight, while 73.1% of trans respondents said that they are gay/lesbian, bi, pan, or queer. A further 5.4% were ace.

Some trans people are subjected to conversion therapy that attempts to stop them being trans. This is as harmful and damaging as conversion therapy that tries to change someone’s sexual orientation. Our research found that that in the UK,  one in five trans people (20%) have been pressured to access services to suppress their gender identity when accessing healthcare services.

Conversion therapy, in all its forms, should be banned – you can learn more about our campaign to ban LGBTQ+ conversion therapy here.

Is it true that lots of people change their mind about their transition?

Let’s start with the reality: most trans people who transition do so without any regrets. But while detransitioning is very rare (less than 1%), it does happen.

People detransition for many reasons, and detransition does not, in and of itself, mean regret. It can mean that a person no longer identifies as trans, or that they feel they are now a different gender to the one they previously identified as. It can also mean a person has decided this moment isn’t the right time for them to transition, and they might plan to transition when they have more support.

The most common reason for detransition is that an individual cannot cope with the family and community support they lost and the transphobia they experienced when they transitioned. Those who detransition or experience regret deserve ongoing support and care, as do people who transition and live as that gender for the rest of their lives.

It's important to remember that the fact that some people detransition does not make the experiences and existence of trans people any less valid or real. Nor does it mean that transition-based healthcare should be made even harder to access than it already is.

You can read more about this on our dispelling myths around detransition page.

Are you calling for gender to be removed from documents?

We want systems that are inclusive and do not discriminate against people because of who they are. Most importantly of all, we want equality.

Where gender is listed on documents, we believe it is only fair for all people to have the gender that reflects their lived reality on their documents – including non-binary people and intersex people.

We believe that processes and documents can be made to include and protect everyone quite easily. We need to look at systems sensibly, and think critically about what information is needed and what information isn’t. For some trans people, having a gender listed on a document will make them feel more safe, and for others the opposite can be true. Safety and inclusion must be at the centre of any future decisions.

All that is required is a common-sense approach that is inclusive and supportive.

What does non-binary mean, and what’s the right way to talk about it?

‘Non-binary’ is an umbrella term for people who:

  • don’t solely identify as either male or female
  • identify as both male and female
  • identify with another gender
  • don’t identify with any gender

Because the binary terms of ‘male’ and ‘female’ don’t fit, using pronouns such as ‘he’ or ‘she’ might not always be right, so when you talk to someone who’s non-binary try to find a good moment and ask them how they would prefer to be addressed. The person might use ‘they’, ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns, something different, or no pronouns at all.

It may take a bit of getting used to, but using the pronouns a non-binary person has asked for will make that person feel acknowledged and welcomed. It’s not long since some people struggled to accept that some women wanted to be called Ms instead of Miss, but we got used to the common courtesy of simply asking people how they wanted to be addressed. This is no different.

There are websites that can help you get used to using pronouns that are new to you, such as Practice with Pronouns.

What does ‘cis’ mean?

‘Cis’ is short for ‘cisgender’, which means somebody whose gender identity matches the sex they were given at birth. Basically, it means ‘not trans’.

Using the word ‘cis’ is important – without it, people might use phrases like ‘trans people and normal people’, which is stigmatising.

‘Cis’ and ‘trans’ are neutral descriptive terms that put everyone on an equal footing and name one part of our experiences of gender.

What do deadnaming and misgendering mean?

‘Deadnaming’ is the term for when somebody refers to a trans person using the name they had before they transitioned. ‘Misgendering’ is the term used when someone refers to a trans person using terms linked to the gender they were assigned at birth, instead of their real gender (for example by using terms like ‘man’, ‘woman’ or using pronouns incorrectly).

When done deliberately, deadnaming and misgendering are both deeply hurtful to trans people. If you hear people doing this, stand up as an ally and challenge the person saying it, if it’s safe for you to do so.

It all feels complicated and I’m frightened of saying the wrong thing

Understanding gender identity and trans issues can be confusing at first, but nobody is expecting you to know everything right away. If you want to find out more about the experiences of some trans people, you can hear them in their own words in these videos.

If you say the wrong thing by accident (which is something that happens to everyone), just apologise, recognise you’ve got it wrong, and move on. We’re all human and people slip up sometimes. As long as you have good intentions, most trans people will appreciate you acknowledging your blunder and help you get it right. It’s important that we have real, honest, respectful conversations.

Can you be trans and gay?

Sexual orientation (who you are attracted to) is completely unrelated to gender identity (who you are). You can be trans and gay, trans and straight, trans and bi, ace, or anything else – just like a cis person can be. Simple.

So, could a lesbian have a trans woman as a lesbian partner, or a gay man be with a trans man?

Of course – if they fancy each other! First and foremost, we need to recognise that trans women are women, and trans men are men. After that it becomes a matter of who you are attracted to. Adults are free to have relationships with other consenting adults, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity. Trans people have the same range of sexual orientations as cis people, and there are many trans lesbians and gay trans men.

Which public toilets can trans people use?

Trans people can and have been using the toilets that match their gender for decades without issue. The media-generated ‘debate’ about public toilets is having a negative effect on the whole LGBTQ+ community. Anyone whose appearance doesn’t fit with stereotypical ideas around what men or women look like are increasingly being challenged simply for using the loo.

Having facilities that everyone can use – like gender-neutral single stall toilets and changing rooms with private space – makes life easier for lots of people. Many businesses and institutions have been taking this approach for a long time now as it benefits families, people with disabilities and many LGBTQ+ people.

When toilets are gendered, in general trans men have the legal right to use the men’s toilets, and trans women have the legal right to use women’s toilets.

Restricting trans peoples’ access to public toilets would severely limit their ability to live their lives freely. After all, most people need to use a toilet at some point during the day.

Should trans women continue to be allowed in women’s refuges?

Refuges exist to support vulnerable women leaving unsafe situations. Our 2018 research found that 41% of trans people have experienced a hate crime in the past year, and more than one in four trans people in a relationship have faced domestic abuse from a partner. It’s heart-breaking to imagine being the victim of violence and then being turned away from help when you desperately need it.

Many refuges already support trans women escaping abuse. In fact, most domestic violence services in Scotland have been doing this for nearly 10 years. You can read a statement from Scottish women’s organisations about this here. We have to trust that the people running these services know what they’re doing. They’re the experts at supporting women in these services, after all.

There’s a chronic lack of funding and support for refuges, which means victims of domestic violence who desperately need help are being turned away in ever increasing numbers. That’s something we all need to work together to tackle. We also need more shelters for men, and LGBTQ-specific shelters.

If you want to learn more about trans women’s experiences of sexual and domestic violence, read the report we produced with nfpSynergy: ‘Supporting trans women in domestic and sexual violence services'.

Should trans women continue to be able to sit on women-only panels or be on women-only shortlists?

Yes. Trans women are women, and because of that it makes sense that they should have the same opportunities as any other woman. Women-only panels and shortlists exist to try and redress the gender inequality that all women – trans women included – face every day.

Panels and shortlists are stronger when they recognise and represent women from a wide range of backgrounds. This includes trans women, who have very little visible representation in positions of power and who can bring different experiences and perspectives to the table.

Should trans people continue to be allowed to play sport?

Trans people are already playing sport. Most governing bodies in sports have rules to support trans inclusion which have been in place for many years.

But recently, there has been lots of discussion about opportunities for trans people in sport, with particular attention on how trans women can participate in elite sport. It’s important that these conversations have inclusion at their heart, so that everyone can experience the different benefits of sport.

The impact of transition on athletes at different levels in different sports is not well understood. Generalised average data about strength, body mass and testosterone doesn’t account for the wide range of people of all genders who take part in different sports, at different levels. It also ignores the influence of skill and training on fairness and safety.

When people focus on testosterone levels as equating to sporting success, it not only negatively affects trans people in sport, it affects anyone who does not fit with stereotypical, western ideas about what a woman’s body should be like. This sexism often intersects with other prejudices such as racism, homophobia and intersexphobia. We saw this in action at the 2020 Olympics, when Namibian track and field stars Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were banned from competing because of their natural testosterone levels.

Sport has the power to change lives. From recreational to elite, sport at all levels helps people come together, work as a team, push themselves and achieve amazing things – and no one should be left behind or excluded.

Read more from our CEO on trans inclusion in sport here.

Why are people who support trans equality refusing to go on panel shows to discuss gender? Aren’t you silencing debate?

Trans people and trans allies are keen to have robust and honest debates about how to make trans equality a reality in the UK. What they’re not prepared to do is debate whether or not they have the right to be themselves, or have rights as citizens under the law.

We’re working with people in the media to help move the conversation on. We want to focus on how we can work together to tackle transphobia and ensure that trans people are represented truthfully and respectfully in the media.

How do other equality movements relate to trans equality?

Trans people are not one-dimensional beings: like everyone else we have intersectional identities. This means the fight for trans equality cannot be fully achieved without achieving equality for everyone.

At its core, the trans rights movement is based on the same ideals as other liberation movements, including the women’s rights, racial equality and disability rights movements. For example:

  • the right to bodily autonomy.
  • the right to self-determination rather than physical attributes determining the options open to you
  • freedom from limits and stereotypes placed on us by society
  • freedom from interpersonal and state violence.

How can I support a trans young person?

When supporting a trans young person, the most impactful things you can do are:

Refer to them in whatever way they prefer and be willing to changing the pronouns and names you use for them – they may try out several different names and pronouns to find the one that is right for them.

Let them know that:

  • they will have your support no matter what identity they settle on
  • it’s OK for them to change their mind as many times as they need to
  • it’s also OK for them identify the way they currently do for the rest of their lives.

Check in with them about what they want, and who they are comfortable with you using the new pronouns and name around. If there are people that the young person does not feel comfortable being out to, it is important to respect their confidentiality.

Create space for the young person to share situations that they are finding difficult and try to problem solve together.

For more information on how to support trans young people in education settings, visit our trans inclusion guide for schools and colleges.

You can also check out Gendered Intelligence who work with young trans people aged 8+.

What can I do to be an ally to trans people?

More and more people are recognising the importance of stepping up and being a vocal ally to trans people. Prominent individuals in politics and in the media are already doing it, as are leading organisations and businesses.

But there are also lots of small steps you can take to be a trans ally. Whether it’s online or in real life, simply listening to – and supporting – trans people can make a huge difference.

For more information on what else you can do, go to our current campaigns page. You can also sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date, as well as getting stuck into our five-year partnership project TRANSforming Futures.

Thank you for taking the time to read this Q&A. If you want to support Stonewall’s work, why not make a donation that can help make life better for LGBTQ+ people?