Where does the British public stand on transgender rights in 2022?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
July 20, 2022, 9:30 AM GMT+0

There has been an erosion in support for trans rights since 2018

The fight over transgender rights has become increasingly prominent in recent years. The government caused a major row in April when it sought to exclude conversion therapy aimed at transgender people from its ban on the practice. A YouGov poll at the time showed that the majority of the public disagreed with this decision.

But where does the public stand on the broader transgender discussion? A new YouGov study, the third, and most expansive, in a series spanning back to 2018, shows evidence of an overall gradual erosion in support towards transgender rights. In some areas the shift is very pronounced.

This article starts by looking at how much attention people are paying to the transgender rights debate in the first place, and their perceptions of the severity of the problem of anti-transgender prejudice.

It then examines attitudes on various aspects of the transgender rights debate, followed by the extent to which those attitudes have changed since 2018.

Finally, it breaks down attitudes – and how they’ve changed – by social group, including age, gender, and voting behaviour, as well as by whether or not people know a transgender person.

Fieldwork for this survey was conducted on 19-20 May 2022, prior to the Conservative leadership contest at which transgender issues have been widely discussed. For the purposes of this survey, “transgender” was defined to respondents as “someone who identifies as a different gender to their sex at birth, including people who identify as being non-binary”.

Most Britons have paid little to no attention to the trans rights debate

The debate on transgender rights is one of the foremost frontlines of the ‘culture wars’, a series of arguments on social justice that also encompasses topics like Britain’s colonial history, Black Lives Matter and free speech in universities.

But despite Westminster’s fixation with such issues – alongside sections of the media and twitter – the public themselves are far less invested. Two thirds of Britons say they pay little attention (42%) or no attention (24%) to the debate in the media and politics about trans rights.

Only one in three say they pay more attention than this, including just 8% who say they pay “a lot” of attention.

That is not to say that Britons are blind to the fact that discrimination against transgender people takes place. Half (49%) believe that discrimination against transgender people is either a major problem (16%) or a significant problem (33%) in Britain today. This is comparable to the number who say the same for other minority groups, such as Asian people (48% say is a major/significant problem), disabled people (49%) and black people (51%), and higher than the number for discrimination against gays and lesbians (43%).

Nor does it mean that those who pay little attention to the trans debate are unsympathetic. Among those who pay “not much” attention to the debate – the largest section of society – 49% say discrimination against trans people is a significant problem, compared to the 37% who disagree.

Those who pay “no attention at all” to the trans debate are much less likely to agree, however. Only 25% of this group say that discrimination against trans people is a major/significant problem, while 49% think it isn’t much of a problem, if it is one at all.

Part of this is ignorance (people paying no attention to the trans debate are much more likely to answer “don’t know” in response to this question, and indeed to all the questions about transgender issues), but part of this is also that those with the least permissive trans views are much more likely to say they pay no attention to the debate. If we use those who say that a person should not be able to change their gender status legally or even socially as our example, 38% of this group say they pay no attention to the trans debate at all, compared to 6% who say they give it “a lot” of attention.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS TRANSGENDER RIGHTS

Recognition: most Britons say that people should be able to change their social gender, but are split on whether they should be able to change their legal gender

This latest version of the study introduced a new format of questions to look at public recognition of transgender status.

A majority of Britons believe that people should be able to change the gender they socially identify as, with 55% saying “people should be able to identify as being of a different gender to the one they had recorded at birth”. Fewer than half as many (25%) take the opposing view, with 20% unsure.

However, when it comes to the matter of being allowed to legally change their gender status, the public is divided. Four in ten (40%) say the law should allow people to change their legal gender, while 37% say it should not. The remaining 23% are unsure.

If we combine responses to the two questions, we see that the largest single group in society are those who think people should be able to both socially and legally change their gender, at 38%.

Another 11% of Britons are happy for people to be able to live as a different gender socially, but don’t think they should be able to get legal recognition for their change. Another 6% think people should be able to change their social gender, but are unsure of whether they should be able to do so legally.

Overall, one in four Britons (23%) reject any form of transgender status, saying they don’t think people should be change their gender either socially or legally.

One in six Britons (16%) answered “don’t know” on both questions.

Process: Britons oppose making it easier to legally change gender

Respondents were given a brief explanation of what the current requirements are for someone to legally change their gender (exact wording can be seen in the chart below), including the fact that a doctor’s approval must be obtained for someone to legally transition, and that a trans person should have to live as their ‘new’ gender for two years before they can gain legal recognition.

In principle, Britons oppose making this process easier at a rate of almost two to one (50% vs 26%).

Opposition is higher still when it comes to the specific aspects we highlighted. By 60% to 17%, Britons think the legal process should continue to require a doctor’s approval, and by a similar 59% to 15%, Britons say transgender people should continue to have to show they have lived in their new gender for two years before the change can be legally accepted.

Access to sport: Britons oppose transgender athletes taking part in sporting events for their new gender

There has been a recent spate of sporting bodies imposing bans on trans athletes competing under their new gender, including British Triathlon, the international swimming body Fina, and International Rugby League in the last month alone.

The trans sport debate has focussed primarily on the ability for transgender women to compete, with opponents arguing they have an inherent physiological advantage even after transition.

The public are strongly opposed to trans women athletes participating in women’s sporting events, by 61% versus just 16% who are supportive.

It is not clear, however, how much of this is represents acceptance of the argument that trans women athletes have an unfair advantage, because Britons also tend to be opposed to transgender men competing in men’s events. Such opposition is lower, however, at 48%, with 29% in favour.

Access to facilities: Britons are more worried about granting trans women access to women’s spaces than trans men to men’s spaces

When it comes to access to gender-specific facilities, attitudes are consistently more permissive towards granting access to transgender men than transgender women. Willingness also depends on the facility in question, with people more concerned about allowing access to changing rooms than toilets.

While Britons are split on whether trans women should be allowed to use women’s toilets (38% say they should, 41% say they should not), they tend to be opposed to allowing trans women to use women’s changing rooms, by 43% to 34%.

Britons tend to be ok with trans men using men’s changing rooms (42% say they should be allowed, 34% say they should not), although they are slightly more circumspect about granting access to men’s changing rooms (40% say it should be allowed, 36% say it should not).

When it comes to women’s refuges for victims of rape or assault, Britons are split on allowing trans women access, with 39% saying they should be able to and 36% saying they should not. (There was no trans men equivalent for this question).

There are some Britons for whom whether or not a transgender person has had gender reassignment surgery is a key factor in whether they think they should be able to use the facilities of their new gender.

Subsequently asking the same questions about toilets and changing rooms – but this time specifying trans people who had not undergone gender reassignment surgery – sees permissiveness decline. In the case of allowing such trans women to use women’s toilets, willingness falls from 38% in the generic question to 29%, and in the case of changing rooms, from 34% to 25%.

Belief that transgender men who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery should be allowed to use men’s toilets falls from 42% in the generic question to 32%, and changing rooms from 40% to 28%.

In all of these cases, the shift is not directly from being willing to unwilling to grant access to gendered spaces once it is specified the transgender person has not had reassignment surgery. About half of those who change their minds go into outright opposition, while the other are half unsure of how they feel.

The main argument against allowing transgender people – generally transgender women – to use facilities of their preferred gender has been that it poses a potential risk of danger to women.

Four in ten Britons (39%) agree with this view, believing that allowing transgender women to use spaces like women’s toilets or changing rooms poses a “genuine risk of harm” to women. One in three (32%) say that this is not the case, while the remaining 29% are unsure.

Likewise, some argue that expanding transgender rights come at the expense of other people’s rights – again, typically women’s rights.

When it comes to this wider question of whether trans rights diminish women’s rights, Britons are split, with 33% saying it does not pose any genuine risk to women’s rights, while 36% think it does. The other 31% of Britons are unsure.

Access to treatment: Britons are split on the NHS providing hormone therapy for trans people, and tend to oppose it providing gender reassignment surgery

This year’s study is the first to include questions about access to transgender treatments.

At present, for adults with gender dysphoria – the medical term used by the NHS for “those who feel a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity” – the NHS offers multiple services, including psychological support, hormone therapy, speech and language therapy, and gender reassignment surgery.

Britons are split 38% in favour and 41% opposed to the NHS providing hormone treatments. When it comes to gender reassignment surgery, the level of opposition is slightly greater, with 44% opposed and 33% in favour.

One of the most contentious parts of the transgender debate is whether or not people should be allowed to transition as a child. Currently, it is not permitted for under-16s to receive hormone treatments, and surgery is only available for those aged 18 and above.

This is in line with the public view, who clearly come down against allowing transgender treatment to children wishing to transition. Three quarters (78%) oppose gender reassignment surgery for under-16s, and 68% say the same of giving these young people hormone treatment. Only 4% support the former, and 10% the latter.

It is possible for trans children under the age of 16 to be prescribed puberty blockers, which help delay unwanted physical changes that don't match their gender identity. This too is opposed by the public, however, by 65% to 12%.

Britons do not have blanket stances on trans issues

While some activists on either side of the trans rights debate might see the issue in black and white terms, and expect that the public do so as well, it is important to stress that this is not the case. Very few Britons took a blanket view of trans issues across our survey.

Looking at how respondents answered across our battery of 23 transgender questions, just three people gave the ‘less permissive’ answer on trans rights every single time, and only two respondents gave the ‘more permissive’ answer to all 23 questions. In both cases, this represents a statistical 0% of our 1,751-strong sample.

How have attitudes on transgender issues changed over time?

Elements of this survey have been asked three times: first in December 2018, then again in June 2020 and finally in May 2022. Some others have been asked in the 2020 and 2022 tranches only.

What the results consistently show is an erosion of permissiveness towards transgender rights over that time period. In some cases the difference is small, but in others there has been a substantial shift.

On the key premise of whether Britons accept that a trans man is a man and a trans woman is a woman, there was net agreement that they are back in 2018 (+11, with 43% agreeing and 32% disagreeing in both cases).

This agreement has diminished, with Britons now split, with 38% agreeing and 40% disagreeing that a trans woman is a woman, and a 39% / 39% split on whether or not a trans man is a man (net scores of -2 and ±0, respectively).

The biggest single shift that has taken place since 2018 is over trans women’s participation in women’s sports. While this was already unpopular – back in 2018 Britons said such participation should not be allowed by 48% to 27% – sentiment is even more negative now: 61% now say trans women should not be allowed to take part in women’s sport, with just 16% believing they should.

There has likewise been a negative shift in attitudes towards trans men participating in men’s sport, albeit to a lesser extent and from a higher initial starting point: while Britons were split 37% in favour vs 39% against in 2018, these figures have since shifted to 29% and 48% respectively.

On issues of facilities access for trans people, where Britons once held somewhat permissive views, those attitudes have since become more split, if not outright negative. While there was previously a clear margin of acceptance for trans women to use women’s changing rooms, toilets and refuges, Britons now tend to oppose the first and are divided on the second and third.

For trans men, this margin of acceptance has also closed, although opinion is still slightly in favour of allowing access to men’s changing rooms and toilets.

What is notable about opinion on facilities access, however, is that all of the shift has taken place since 2020. Between 2018 and 2020, willingness to allow trans men and women to use the changing rooms and toilets of their preferred gender (as well as refuges in the latter case) remained virtually static.

On the broader issue of whether trans women being allowed to use women’s spaces presents a genuine risk of harm to women there has also been a decline. While Britons thought there was no such risk by 43% to 29% in 2018, by 2022 this had shifted to 39% of Britons saying there is such a risk, compared to 32% saying there is not.

That said, there has been a marginal shift in favour of greater rights in one area: legal recognition. While the number of Britons who think it should not be made easier for people to change their legal gender has stayed about the same over the three studies (between 47% and 50%), there has been some slight movement on the specifics of the process.

The number of people who think a doctor’s approval should need to be obtained in order to secure legal recognition of a gender change has fallen slightly, from 65% to 60%. There has likewise been a five point decrease in the number of people saying that living as your preferred gender for two years should also be necessary to legally change gender (from 64% to 59%). In both cases, this difference does not entirely reflect a shift to the opposite view, and indeed in both cases it means that the public are still firmly against making changes to the legal process.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS TRANSGENDER RIGHTS BY SOCIAL GROUP

By familiarity with trans people: those who personally know someone transgender are more likely to support greater trans rights

Overall, one in three Britons (33%) say they personally know someone who is transgender. This includes 9% who say they have a transgender friend, 7% a transgender colleague, and 3% a transgender family member. A further 18% say they personally know a transgender person who doesn’t fit into any of these categories. (These figures do not sum to 33% as some people will know transgender people in more than one category)

The younger Britons are, the more likely they are to know a transgender person personally. While 44% of 18-24 year olds say they know someone transgender, this falls with each successive age group, reaching 23% of those aged 65 and above.

The more closely familiar Britons are with a transgender person, the more likely they are to be supportive of greater transgender rights across every question we asked.

Acceptance of a person’s ability to change their social gender stands at 80% of those with a trans friend or family member, and 72% among those who personally know a trans person in any capacity. Among those who do not know any trans people personally, it falls to 49% (although they still outnumber the 30% in this group who say people should not be able to socially identify as another gender).

Likewise, in terms of supporting a person’s ability to change their legal gender, this stands at 67% among those with trans friends and/or family and 56% who personally know a trans person. By contrast, only one in three people who don’t know any trans people personally support allowing people to legally change their gender (34%).

However, there are still some parts of the transgender rights debate that even those who know transgender people personally don’t support. For instance, by 51% to 37%, those with a trans friend or family member say trans women should not be allowed to take place in women’s sporting events. The number supporting trans women being allowed to compete falls to just 23% among the wider group of people who know a trans person personally.

Likewise, those with trans friends and family members still think getting a doctor’s approval (58%) and living your new gender for two years (also 58%) should be requirements for being able to legally change your gender.

Making transition treatments available for under-16s is also opposed a majority of those with trans friends and/or family, including puberty blockers (51%), hormone treatment (58%) and especially gender reassignment surgery (76%).

By trans acceptance: those who support the right of someone to legally change gender nevertheless do not support all trans rights

Earlier on we broke down the public by how they responded to two questions: whether someone should be able to change their gender socially, and whether they should be able to do it legally.

Unsurprisingly, those who say people should be able to do neither ware strongly opposed to trans rights across all the questions we asked. The same is true of those who responded “don’t know” to both recognition questions, albeit to a much lesser extent (not least because they were more likely to answer “don’t know” to any given question).

Among those who say that people should be able to change their social gender but not their legal gender, attitudes also tend towards the restrictive. On only one question did this group have net permissive attitudes: allowing trans men to use men’s toilets, and even then only a score of +5.

Britons who support people being able to change their gender both socially and legally are strongly supportive on many of the issues we covered, but not all of them. While they support access for trans people on all the facilities questions, they nevertheless tend to oppose trans women athletes taking part in women’s sporting events.

Likewise, while they back making it easier for trans people to change their legal gender, when it comes to the specifics they oppose removing the requirements for transgender people to get a doctor’s approval and to live as their new gender for two years before they can receive legal recognition.

Britons who think someone should be able to change their gender socially, but are unsure about legally, tend to have permissive trans views across a clutch of issues, generally regarding access to facilities for trans men, and provision of NHS transgender treatment to adults.

They are, however, particularly sceptical about making it easier for people to legally change their gender.

By gender: Women are more likely than men to support greater transgender rights across all questions

Across the board, women are more likely than men to support greater transgender rights.

In fact, the only transgender issue on which men tend to be supportive is that people should be able to socially identify as a different gender to the one they had recorded at birth, by 47% to 33% (a net score of +14). While this may be the most pro-trans stance men take, it is also the one on which they are farthest behind women. More than six in ten women (63%) say people should be able to identify as another gender socially, compared to only 18% who disagree, giving a net score of +45.

When it comes whether someone can change their legal gender status, men tend to be opposed, by 42% to 36%. Women remain in favour, although only a plurality of 44% say so, with 32% opposed.

Much of the contention around trans rights has focused on transgender women and their access to women’s spaces. It is pertinent to note, therefore, that in all cases women are notably more relaxed about the prospect of a trans woman in a woman’s space than men are.

The degree to which women are comfortable sharing their space with trans women does differ, however, depending on the venue.

While women tend to think that trans women should be allowed to use women’s refuges for victims of rape or assault by 45% to 30%, and women’s toilets by 45% to 34%, allowing trans women in women’s changing rooms is more divisive, with 40% in favour but 37% opposed.

Whether a trans person has had gender reassignment surgery also matters, with women tending to say trans women who have not undergone such surgery should not be allowed to use women’s toilets (40% vs 34%) or changing rooms (42% vs 29%).

In all cases, men tend to oppose trans women’s access to women’s facilities, and by notable margins.

On the general question of whether trans women using women’s facilities like toilets and changing rooms poses a genuine risk of harm to women, women are split, with 38% saying they do not and 34% saying they do. Men, by contrast, are far more likely to see trans women as a threat to women’s safety, by 45% to 26%.

On the wider issue of whether expanding trans rights poses a risk to women’s rights, women are again divided, with 33% saying it does and 38% it does not. Again, men take a more sceptical view, with 39% perceiving a risk to women’s rights while 28% do not.

Tracking attitudes by gender over time shows that, among women, willingness to allow trans women access to female facilities has declined between 2020 and 2022, having previously remained relatively static from 2018 to 2020.

For instance, while in 2018 women supported the right of trans women to use women’s toilets by 52% to 26%, and by 54% to 24% in 2020, between 2020 and 2022 support dropped to 45%, while opposition rose to 34%.

This reflects a rising fear that such access presents a risk to women’s safety: in 2018, 26% of women held such concerns, as did 28% in 2020. By 2022 this had shifted to 34%. Over the time period of the three studies, the number of women saying there was no plausible risk fell from 48% to 38%.

Attitudes to trans women athletes have shifted the most rapidly, particularly among women. While in 2018 women were opposed to trans women’s participation in women’s sport by 39% to 33%, by 2022 this gap had widened to 55% to 19%. Women have also shifted from supporting the ability of trans men to take part in men’s sport (by 42% to 31% in 2018) to opposing it: as of 2022, 43% of women say this should not be allowed versus 31% who think it should. Men’s attitudes have become more negative still on both accounts.

On the general question of whether or not it should be easier for people to change their gender, attitudes have remained largely static. Belief that people should be required to get a doctor’s permission or have to live as their new gender for two years before they can make the legal shift has dropped among small numbers of women.

By age: young people are more supportive of trans rights than their elders

Age is a key factor in Britons’ views on transgender rights. The younger Britons are, the more likely they are to be in favour of any measure we asked about.

In all age groups, Britons tend to believe people should be able to socially identify as a different gender to the one they had recorded at birth. However, while this figure is 62% for those aged 18-24, and 61% for those aged 25-49, it falls to 54% of those aged 50-64 and 42% of those aged 65 and above (although for this oldest age group this opinion is still more common than the opposite, with only 33% thinking people should not be able to identify as they wish socially).

This is also, however, the only transgender issue on which the oldest age group is net supportive. With the exception of a net +1 on thinking trans men should be allowed to use men’s toilets, the same is true of the 50-64 year old age group.

When it comes to allowing people to legally change their gender, a majority of 18-24 year olds are supportive (57%), while 25-49 year olds also tend to think this should be allowed (by 47% to 33%). Age groups over 50 tend to think this should not be allowed.

While the youngest Britons are more supportive than their elders, there are some trans rights issues on which they too show scepticism. There is net opposition among 18-24 year olds for providing transgender treatments to children, and allowing trans women to take part in women’s sporting events. And although there is slim net support for making the legal process of transition easier (+6), they are marginally opposed to removing the main requirements that would actually entail: requiring trans people to live as their preferred gender for two years (-4) and requiring a doctor to sign off (-6).

On access to gendered sports and spaces, attitudes have become consistently less permissive among those under the age of 65. However, for 18-24 year olds this shift has mostly been a result of people being more likely to shift from the permissive view into “don’t know”, than to actively become anti- certain practices. This is not the case among 25-49 and 50-64 year olds. Among those aged 65 and above, attitudes actually became more permissive between 2018 and 2020 (albeit, from a very sceptical starting point), although they have since become more negative again.

Separately, 18-24 year olds have also become specifically more likely to say trans people should not need a doctor’s approval to change their legal gender, rising from 23% to 33%. This shift has played out as a movement from saying one was necessary in 2018 to being unsure in 2020, and then from unsure to saying it is not necessary in 2022.

By party vote: Attitudes towards trans rights are declining among both Conservative and Labour voters

As the Conservative leadership election plays out, the problems facing Britain include a pandemic, a cost of living crisis, and the war in Ukraine, to name a few. Yet several candidates have gone out of their way to set out their views on transgender rights.

Conservative voters in particular could be bemused by this focus: fully three quarters (76%) say that they have paid little to no attention to the trans debate of recent years.

Labour voters, by contrast, are much more likely to have been paying attention to the debate: half (53%) say they’ve been paying a lot of attention (14%) or a fair amount of attention (39%), twice the number of Tories who have paid much attention.

Conservative voters hold less permissive views on transgender rights than Labour voters across the board.

While 71% of Labour voters say someone should be able to change their social gender, Conservative voters are split, with 41% saying someone can change their social gender but 40% disagreeing.

When it comes to whether someone can change their legal gender, most Labour voters again think this is acceptable, but by a smaller margin of 58% to 21%. Most Conservatives are opposed to allowing people to change their legal gender, by 56% to 24%.

The two voting groups take opposing stances on whether giving increased recognition and rights to transgender people poses a genuine risk to some women's rights. Conservative voters believe that it does, by 52% to 21%, while Labour voters believe there is no such risk by 52% to 24%.

When it comes to those questions for which we can track attitudes over time, there is a consistent, negative, direction of travel among both voting groups when it comes to access issues. In almost all cases, this change has been greater among Conservative voters. (Note that because the first study took place in 2018, and our political samples are based on how people voted in 2019, the results we compared are for only the 2020 and 2022 studies)

When it comes to legal recognition issues, Labour voters’ views remained static between 2020 and 2022. Conservative voters’ views, by contrast, became less permissive when it comes to making the process easier in principle and whether a doctor should be involved.

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