In the sea of dodgy statistics and facts and figures thrown at us daily, the census has always stood apart. As the only comprehensive official national survey – dating back to 1801 – this lofty, heavyweight record doesn’t just help provide a detailed snapshot of our society every 10 years, but forms the basis of future government policies and guidance. Yet when, back in January, findings from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested there were 262,000 transgender people in England and Wales, the analysis raised eyebrows.
This was the first time in its 220-year history that the census had published this measurement, and it wasn’t released in a vacuum but in the middle of a culture war being waged in our schools and universities, in our NHS, our government and sporting world, among others. Some saw this number as proof that a whole raft of new guidance and laws should be fast-tracked. Others stared at the figure, this idea that 0.5 per cent of the population did not identify with the gender they were registered as at birth, and asked: “Can this really be the case?”
Nine months on, an official inquiry conducted by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) into the findings has found that the way the figure was compiled was flawed, that the ONS should have done more to communicate “uncertainty” about the data and that the body should have sought external “quality assurance.” One Whitehall source has gone as far as to conclude that the census’s figures on gender were “hugely overstated.”
As with any kind of survey or poll, it’s all about the wording – a wording academics warned may have been “confusing” for certain demographics at the time the figures were released, notably respondents whose first language is not English. This might explain why, for example, the London boroughs of Newham and Brent, which have a significant percentage of residents who speak English as a second language, recorded the highest proportion of transgender people in the UK.
English is my first language, yet when I was about to donate blood last week I was confused by an online questionnaire I found asking whether I was “a person who menstruates”. My 82-year-old father-in-law is confused by the way his local hospital repeatedly refers to him as “they.” So when academics looking into these statistics found that those who speak English poorly were five times more likely to be transgender, shouldn’t the natural response by anyone seeking accuracy have been to question those figures?
Whether the real number of Brits identifying as trans is one or a million shouldn’t impact their right to be recognised, included, valued and visible within our society; to have equal access to resources and opportunities and legal protection from harassment and discrimination. But when it comes to driving public policy and guidance the accuracy of statistics does matter.
The now defunct Tavistock clinic would not have been able to push its dangerous agendas and practices for as long as it did if the statistics it was putting out as validation had been challenged: if it had collected accurate data on puberty blockers for the under-16s, on the effects of its treatments and the number of other factors involved – factors such as autism, eating disorders and histories of trauma and abuse.
The inflation of figures around gender dysphoria in children has directly impacted how and when gender issues are being addressed – even taught – in classrooms across the country. It has led to vulnerable girls being robbed of their “safe spaces” and other basic rights and, in the continued absence of any official guidance from the Government, to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) being forced to step in and publish its own legal advice to teachers and families last week – stating, among other things, that teachers who “misgender” trans pupils are not in fact guilty of discrimination.
It has led to shocking cases of unfairness and schisms in competitive sports, the latest being members of the England ladies’ angling team refusing to compete in the world championship after the inclusion of a transgender woman in their team. Perhaps most importantly, it has bred discriminatory attitudes and ill-will towards a trans community that – however small or large – should never be seen as the enemy.
Any skewing of figures, accidental or deliberate, will entrench divisions further and eradicate a progress we should all welcome. Only, surely, when there is accuracy and transparency, can we have a conversation that has become impossible.