In 2021, for the first time, the census asked participants about their sexuality and gender, and on the 6th of January, we finally got to see the data. It was the result of campaigning from charities, including Stonewall UK, that argued that queer people are a “hidden population”. Nancy Kelly, the Chief Executive for Stonewall UK, released a statement saying, “Collecting this vital data will ensure researchers, policymakers, service providers and community organisations are able to understand the needs of LGBT+ people and develop tailored services to help us be treated fairly and achieve our potential.”

Charities like Mermaids hope this data can help influence government spending in the future, “this new data demonstrates the importance of schools, the NHS and other services proactively supporting trans people”. Ultimately this is a positive step forward for them; “many trans people may not have felt safe or ready to declare their gender identity in the census. However, it represents an important step forward that, after two centuries, finally trans communities can be acknowledged.”

Before this, there was no reliable population data on how many trans people lived in the UK. Even clinics that specialise in gender-affirming care, such as the now-closed Tavistock, didn’t consistently track outcomes, and this void has been filled by misinformation and outright transphobia.

According to polls from YouGov, roughly 23% of Britons surveyed believe people should not be allowed to transition their gender either socially (changing their pronouns, the way they dress or their hairstyle) or legally (changing their name and gender on their passport or birth certificate). And 39% of people surveyed believe that giving increased recognition and rights to transgender people poses a genuine risk to some women’s rights. IPSO found a 400% increase in reporting on trans issues between 2009 and 2019, and that trend has continued into the last few years and skewed overwhelmingly negative. Looking at mainstream media, one could be led to believe that there is an epidemic of trans people exhibiting threatening behaviour.

Not every trans person in the UK can be a spokesperson for their community to challenge this perception, nor should they be expected to. But by using data, including from the census, charities and activists have introduced rational thinking into a debate that can often spiral into emotions and demonisation. Many people may feel threatened by trans people, specifically trans women, but as data grows, there is more evidence that this is not the case.

On social media, data has been utilised to combat the claim that the recent surge of people identifying as trans indicates it is merely a trend or a social contagion. Originating in a Medium essay, author Julia Serano pointed to the data on left-handedness as an example of how when restrictions or discriminations are lifted, there is a surge that eventually plateaus into an average for the population again. The data shows that in the early twentieth century, when the hand you wrote with was no longer controlled aggressively in schools, there was a rapid increase in left-handed people, which eventually averaged out at around 12% of the population after about thirty years. This comparison was shared on Tiktok thousands of times to argue that the recent surge in referrals to gender identity services was just a response to changing attitudes and that being trans was no more a social contagion than being left-handed is.

The census has revealed that less than 1% of the population identifies in ways other than their sex registered at birth. Statistically, you are far more likely to meet someone who holds anti-trans opinions than a trans person. The census also reveals that while this is a small proportion of the population, trans and gender-nonconforming people exist in every part of England and Wales. As with all their data, they published an interactive map alongside their results, prompting curious people to discover “how trans” their borough is.

Although collecting this data is a huge step forward for advocates, it doesn’t tell us much other than population density. The organisation TransActual has been surveying trans people for years

to gather information about access to gender-affirming care, as well as data on sexual orientation and disability within the trans community, in the hope of informing evidence-based care in the future.

Despite what appears from the outside to be a reverence for statistics, its founder, jane fae, is sceptical of how much good it can do in changing minds. “Having data ends up being performative; it doesn’t change a lot of minds. People simply write whatever facts are given to them into the narrative they want.”

The concern is that numbers may not be the infallible, rational, grounding touchstone that we may want them to be and that these debates are far more concerned with how people feel than whether that feeling is justified. Numbers can be manipulated, for example, with data on suicide. “There are high levels of trans suicidality, but this mustn’t mean that people are innately suicidal if they’re trans.” jane argues. “Coming out as trans has a massive adverse effect on your social life and income, which can lead to suicidality. But when we talk about it, the community is accused of weaponising suicide, and the data is turned back against us.”

The data we have available has its limitations. Mermaids and TransActual have criticised the census for not allowing for options for either non-binary or intersex people, with Mermaids saying this choice “excludes some sections of the trans population”. Gender identity is often so personal and nuanced that it is difficult to quantify it in a way that means everyone feels accurately represented. It is unknown if the Office for National Statistics will take this feedback on board in the future.

For everyday trans and gender-nonconforming people, the census providing a space for them to self-identify has been a source of encouragement. T, a 29-year-old non-binary person who uses she/they pronouns, was excited to be counted as someone living outside the gender binary: “I think it’s important that the government know who the people really are if they want to represent them. Data underpins so many important decisions. There is a lot of noise around trans issues and opinion pieces with a lot of misinformation out there. I think data can help sort the facts from the fiction”. Whilst it can be difficult for trans and gender non-conforming to find positive stories to encourage hope for the future, simply knowing that they have been counted provides comfort for some. “It may be a small step with plenty of room for improvement going forward,” T says “, but it is a step that did not exist before, and I appreciate that. The more you know – the better-informed decisions can be made. I hope so, anyway!”