Features Australia

Gays, trans and damned statistics

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

Australia’s 17th census, conducted in 2016, was the first since the exercise began in 1911 to offer respondents the option of self-classifying as ‘other’ than ‘male’ or ‘female’. A box was also provided in which the respondents could specify their previously unrecognised gender. In a statement released last June, the ABS said this enabled respondents to ‘record their sex in the way each thought appropriate’ and would enable the ABS to ‘expand the Standard Classification of Sex and Gender’.

Like much of what comes out of our bureaucracies these days, the report’s almost apologetic tone suggests it is driven by political correctness rather than a professional imperative to crunch a new set of numbers. ‘The 2016 census was an important step on a journey to collect… statistics on sex and gender diversity,’ it said. ‘The ABS will continue to improve future collection… based on this experience.’

The benefits of going down this road are hazy at best. It is bewilderingly complex and the information it will provide seems of limited value. The list of newly discovered genders is growing at a baffling rate. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are genders we know, genders we know we don’t know, and genders we don’t know we don’t know.

The genders we know we don’t know include androgyne, agender, gender fluid, genderqueer, non-binary, pangender and two-spirit, all of which define people who consider themselves neither one traditional gender nor the other but have minute distinctions that are all but invisible to outsiders. Another gender we know we don’t know is transtrender, a new derogatory term for narcissists who are apparently not transgender at all but think that if they slip into something slinky they might wind up on the the cover of Vanity Fair like Caitlin Jenner. Real transgenders scoff at these Jenny-come-latelys.

The genders we don’t know we don’t know are the ones that will be created when any two of these new genders have children of their own. Given the enthusiasm this cohort has for creating new categories of humans, is it unreasonable to assume their next generation will continue the expansion? The ABS is already struggling to keep up. Currently it is bound by the Guidelines in the Recognition of Sex and Gender, last updated in 2015, which provides for only male, female and other (indeterminate, intersex or unspecified).

The ‘other’ box in the 2016 census was ticked by 1,260 people. The ABS says this figure is low because some transgender people, who have already suffered abuse and discrimination, were afraid to reveal their true selves. Also, the census was often filled out by one person in the household, who may not be aware of the gender ambiguity of his or her fellow residents. The figures might be unreliable for another reason. The Trans Data Position Paper written by Britain’s Office for National Statistics in 2009 said there was evidence that ‘non trans individuals’ were ‘messing around’ in their responses.

Nevertheless, the number of people identifying within these categories is likely to grow along with the categories themselves. In the US, one survey found 3 per cent of teenagers now consider themselves of an undefined gender; another national survey found half of millennials thought gender was not tied to biology. Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital went from treating one patient for gender dysphoria in 2003 to 200 in 2015. Intersex Australia says 1.7 per cent of babies born in Australia each year (5,300 people) will grow up with gender dysphoria.

Ironically, given the ABS’s eagerness to accommodate these new genders, the transgender people themselves rarely show any reciprocal interest in statistics. The Guardian reported in 2004 that a University of Birmingham 5-year survey of 727 post-operative transsexuals was diminished because 495 of the subjects ‘dropped out for unknown reasons’.

In 2011, PLOS One published a 30-year study of 324 Swedish post-operative transsexuals that found they were 19 times more likely than the general population to suicide, 7.6 times more likely to attempt suicide and 2.7 times more likely to commit a violent crime. It is often cited by critics of the transgender movement.

Pro-transgender academics have been trying to debunk the report ever since, but their surveys struggle to find a sample size as large. For example, one study, which found almost all respondents were happy with their operation, was based on a survey of only 201 transgender Eurpoeans, from 546 invited. Did the rest not participate because they were disappointed with their new life? There is a conspicuous reluctance among academics to shed light on the negative aspects of transgenderism, despite evidence in the news and online that it’s not all roses.

The Swedish study was careful to point out there was not a causal relationship between transgender and suicide. ‘Even though surgery and hormonal therapy alleviates gender dysphoria, it is apparently not sufficient to remedy the high rates of morbidity and mortality found among transsexual persons,’ it said. ‘Improved care for the transsexual group after the sex reassignment should therefore be considered.’ Even studies that find the operation improves happiness mostly acknowledge that post-operative transsexuals are still relatively troubled souls who continue to suffer from discrimination and rejection. Their troubles might also be compounded by the latest discovery in this field – that identity is not just independent of biology, it’s temporary.

In an article published on the Conversation and the ABC in January, La Trobe University professorial fellow Dennis Altman said that ‘fixed identities’ were too ‘neat’, and that sexuality and gender were ‘often messy and change over a lifetime’. ‘Desire, behaviour and identity are distinct, and they do not always overlap,’ he said, adding that identity was ‘irrelevant’ to sexual preference.

The new gold standard in gender and sexuality studies is to replace old labels like ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’ with Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which allows for people to change their mind at different stages of life. In its definition of SOGI, California’s Williams Institute says that ‘at any given point in a person’s life, shifts in gender identity may be driven by internal feelings, bodily changes, external expression, or even changes in surrounding circumstance’.

Further, ‘sexual orientation does not determine or limit an individual’s gender identity, and vice versa’.

Yet if ‘identity’ doesn’t affect sexual behaviour, then surely it doesn’t affect other forms of behaviour either. So why should we care? And more importantly, why should statisticians?

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