Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 29, 2016, at 10:24 a.m. ET
As the rights of transgender people became a major political issue in the US with fights over bathroom access, many other countries around the world have been locked in fundamental debates over gender identity.
In 2016, Norway joined a small but rapidly growing number of countries where changing your legal gender is as simple as filling out a form, and a committee of the British Parliament called on the UK to follow suit. Lawmakers in India are weighing laws that would ban discrimination and establish affirmative action for transgender people in response to a Supreme Court order. And a global effort to remove being transgender from the catalog of mental illnesses kept by the World Health Organization has gained ground and appears poised for victory when the list is updated by 2018.
To get a sense of global attitudes on transgender rights, BuzzFeed News and the polling firm Ipsos partnered with UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute to conduct a first-of-its-kind survey of 23 nations asking about everything from bathroom access to sex reassignment surgery.
We ranked support for trans rights in countries surveyed based on how respondents answered six policy questions. The questions concerned access to bathrooms, sex reassignment surgery, marriage, parenting, and protection from discrimination.
Spain and Sweden — both of which have long been at the vanguard of LGBT rights in Europe — rank at the top of our list.
Sweden was the first country in Western Europe to adopt a procedure to allow people to change their legal gender marker in 1972, and its gender identity law became a model for other nations. Argentina, which comes in third in our ranking, set a new gold standard with a “self-determination” gender identity law adopted in 2012: For the first time in the Western Hemisphere, individuals could change their legal gender by simply filling out a form — no surgery or doctor’s permission required. Four countries in Europe have since adopted self-declaration laws modeled on Argentina’s, and at least 18 more countries are considering similar proposals, according to the advocacy group Transgender Europe.
Russia ranks last on nearly every measure in our survey, perhaps because of the anti-LGBT campaign around passage of the so-called gay propaganda law in 2012. The lawmaker who conceived of that provision — St. Petersburg state legislator Vitaly Milonov — is reportedly at work on legislation that would open the door to prosecutions against doctors who perform sex reassignment surgery.
Unfortunately, technical and financial constraints meant we couldn’t do a survey that would be truly representative of all parts of the world. We focused primarily on countries with high internet penetration, where online surveys tend to more reliably represent the general population. As a result, less developed nations, especially in Africa and Asia, are underrepresented in our sample.
We conducted online surveys in 16 countries with widespread internet access. We also surveyed six countries with somewhat lower internet penetration, where the results provide a clue about what people think but might not be broadly representative of public opinion. Additionally, in India we commissioned surveyors to conduct in-person interviews because of the country's low internet penetration. Ipsos considers the results of these surveys to be accurate within a window of 3.1 to 4.5 percentage points, depending on the size of the sample in each country. (You can read more about our methods here.)
Because the word “transgender” (or its equivalent in other languages) is not widely known in many places, we asked respondents about their attitudes toward people “who dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.” We also used the word “sex” rather than “gender” throughout the survey, because many people don’t understand the difference and because many languages don't distinguish between the two.
In nearly every country we surveyed, less than half of the respondents said they believe that individuals should have total control over their own legal gender designation:
Spain was the only country where a majority of our sample support allowing people to change their legal gender designation without restriction, and 48% of our sample support the idea in Argentina, where it is the law. In most countries, a substantial portion of respondents said people who want to change their legal gender should first be required to have sex reassignment surgery or get permission from an official, such as a judge or doctor. (If you want to read up on requirements for changing legal gender designations around the world, check out this new report from the advocacy group ILGA.)
Twenty-four percent of respondents in the United States said that legal gender reassignment should not be allowed under any circumstances, meaning respondents in the US are the most opposed of any country we surveyed — even slightly more opposed than Russian respondents.
Most respondents in two-thirds of these countries said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Support was over 70% in Spain, Argentina, and India. This group includes some countries that score toward the bottom on our measures of support for transgender rights, including Turkey and Peru.
In the United States — where bathroom access has become the primary battleground over transgender rights — just 47% said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Other countries where less than half of respondents support bathroom choice include Brazil, Japan, and Russia.
Most respondents don’t know a transgender person.
People who said they personally know someone who is transgender are substantially more supportive of transgender rights in nearly every country we surveyed. In some countries, people who know a transgender person were 30% more supportive on the scale calculated by BuzzFeed News.
Less than 3% of respondents identify as transgender in almost all the countries we surveyed — the only country where the score was higher was the United States, where 5% said they “dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.”
Our sample wasn’t large enough to precisely measure such small groups, so our findings don’t really tell us how many people identify as transgender. We combined these respondents with people who said they have a transgender friend, family member, or acquaintance to calculate how familiar people in different countries are with transgender people. And we found a huge range.
Brazil came in first on this measure, where 50% of respondents reported familiarity with a transgender person, but the country ranks 14th on our combined measure of support for transgender rights. This visibility is especially notable because Brazil records some of the highest rates of anti-trans violence in the world.
In Spain, our most trans-supportive country, just 25% of respondents reported being familiar with a trans person. The percentage of people who reported being familiar with a transgender person in our most anti-trans country, Russia, is statistically equivalent to the percentages we find in countries like the UK, India, and Germany — all between 16% and 20%. Respondents in Japan appear to be the least familiar with transgender people, even though a 2003 law made the treatment of transgender people a concern of the national government.
People are more comfortable with gay people than transgender people in some countries.
To get a sense of how attitudes toward transgender people might play out in the real world, we asked respondents how they would feel about having different types of people as neighbors. In many countries, the number of respondents who said they wouldn’t want a gay neighbor or a transgender neighbor were about the same. But in several — including the United States — respondents said they are far more opposed to having a transgender neighbor than a gay or lesbian one. Gay and lesbian neighbors are also far more acceptable to respondents in some countries than neighbors of a different race or ethnicity, especially in Europe.
Majorities in nearly every country said they believe transgender people “should be protected from discrimination by the government.”
In most of the world, you need a psychiatric diagnosis to change your legal gender designation. But majorities in most countries surveyed don’t consider being transgender to be a form of mental illness.
Except in the handful of countries with self-determination gender identity laws, you usually need a doctor to diagnose you with “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria” if you want to change your legal gender markers. Many transgender rights supporters and health professionals say this promotes discrimination against transgender people — just as labeling homosexuality a mental illness used to do — and have been pushing medical associations to stop calling transgender people “disordered.” They are poised for a big victory: A draft of the next edition of the World Health Organization’s list of diagnoses deletes the term “gender identity disorder” and no longer classifies being transgender as a mental health issue.
We found only a few countries where a majority of respondents said they think transgender people “have a form of mental illness”: Russia, India, and Turkey. Russia and India were also the only countries where majorities of respondents said they believe transgender people “have a form of physical disability.”
Many countries require sterilization for people who want to change their legal gender designation, but majorities in most countries believe transgender people have a right to be parents.
The fact that a majority in Turkey support allowing transgender people to conceive children is especially notable, since Europe’s top human rights court ruled last year that its sterilization requirement violated international law.
One of the world’s most important gender identity debates is now happening in India.
Legislation is now pending in India that would provide protections to transgender people in the country, home to 1.25 billion people.
Centuries-old communities of transgender women — most commonly known as hijras — were criminalized under laws passed when India was a British colony, and today often make a living as beggars or sex workers. India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the government must enact broad reforms to correct this history, including outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender identity, creating affirmative action for transgender people in employment and schools, and giving them welfare benefits. A law to comply with the order unanimously passed the upper house of the Indian legislature in 2015, but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced its own watered-down version of the legislation earlier this year that transgender activists have widely condemned.
Our in-person survey in India — which was conducted just before the government rolled out its legislation in August 2016 — found overwhelming support for the original Supreme Court ruling, with 47% saying they “strongly agree” with the decision and an additional 35% saying they “somewhat agree.” Support for individual provisions of the ruling ranged as high as 80%, and 64% said they also support reserving seats in the legislature for transgender people the same way there are seats specifically allocated for women. (This idea was not included in the court order.)
But responses in our survey suggest that Indians are still conflicted about the place of transgender people in society. The long history of transgender communities and religious beliefs that they bring blessings is reflected in the fact that more than 60% of Indians said transgender people have “a special place in society” and 48% said they believe they “have unique spiritual gifts,” more than any other country on both measures. But 55% also said transgender people “are violating the traditions of [their] culture” and 49% said they are “committing a sin” — comparable to Russia on both measures.