Transgender in Canada: Canadians say accept, accommodate, and move on

by Angus Reid | September 6, 2016 8:30 pm

More than eight-in-ten support government move to add gender identity to human rights code

September 7, 2016 – It’s been more than two years since Time Magazine declared transgender rights “the next civil rights frontier[1].” In that time, as battles over bathrooms and identification documents have sprung up on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, trans issues have continued to move toward the political and social mainstream in North America.

How are Canadians feeling about this paradigm shift? A comprehensive new public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute paints a picture of an accommodating, tolerant society – one that views increasing acceptance of transgender people as a sign of social progress.

However, divisions remain over which washroom facilities transgender people should use, as well as whether governments should weigh in on the decision.

Canadians are also more likely to say transgender people receive too much attention than too little, suggesting that many would like to see North American culture “move on” from its new obsession.

Key Findings: transgender law


A note on methodology:

To ensure a baseline knowledge of the issues discussed in this survey, respondents were presented with the following definition:

The word “transgender” is an umbrella term that refers to people who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth (based on a doctor’s observation of their genitals). Transgender people may identify as men or women, or neither, or both. 

Some transgender people choose to have surgery so their genitals match their gender identity, but many do not.

PART 1: Trans issues in the spotlight

Canadians are showing some signs of fatigue

In recent years, transgender people have become increasingly prominent in the public consciousness[9].  From the media circus[10] surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, to the continued success[11] of films and television shows featuring transgender characters, to the so-called “bathroom wars”[12] raging in American politics, transgender people and issues related to them have never been more in the spotlight than they are today.

But how much attention is too much?

Asked whether a variety of cultural institutions – including the news media, the entertainment industry, government, and Canadian schools – have been paying “too much,” “too little,” or “about the right amount” of attention to trans people and issues, Canadians are showing some signs of fatigue with this topic.

Respondents are especially likely to believe:

Asked whether this attention has been generally favourable or unfavourable toward the expansion of rights for transgender people, the overwhelming consensus seems to be the former, particularly when it comes to attention from news and entertainment media (For greater detail on each of these questions, see comprehensive tables[13]).

If media treatment of trans people is, in fact, favourable, this may be a recent development. An analysis of transgender characters on television conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) from 2002 to 2012 found most such characters were portrayed negatively[14].

To streamline analysis of this data, ARI researchers combined responses to each of these questions (see note on methodology at the end of this release). As the following graphs indicate, Canadians’ overall tendency is to say that trans issues receive too much attention and that the attention they receive is favourable:

transgender law

caitlyn jenner


Further highlighting this overall view, fully seven-in-ten Canadians (70%) agree with the statement “Society is too fixated on issues related to transgender people,” including three-in-ten (30%) who strongly agree.

That said, Canadians aren’t uniform in holding this perspective. Respondents under age 35 are actually more likely to say too little attention is paid to trans people than to say too much, and people who identify themselves as women are roughly split, as seen in the graph that follows:caitlyn jenner

Even more likely to say the overall amount of attention paid to trans issues is “too little” are lesbian, gay, and bisexual Canadians, who are often grouped with transgender people under the “LGBT” umbrella.

Because roughly 0.6 per cent of Canadians who responded to this survey identify as transgender (a total similar to estimates of the overall trans population[15]), the transgender sample is too small to look at in isolation. Absent a large enough segment of trans respondents, lesbian, gay, and bisexual Canadians are arguably the demographic group most sympathetic toward trans people in this survey.

Among LGB Canadians, nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say trans issues receive “too little attention,” while fewer than one-in-five (18%) say they receive too much. Moreover, personal exposure to LGB Canadians correlates to higher levels of belief that trans people receive too little attention, as seen in the following graph:

caitlyn jenner


PART 2: Transgender people and society

A sign of social progress?

In ways large and small, much of human society has traditionally been organized around the idea that there are two – and only two – genders. These two genders are assumed to have distinct and separate roles in society, and they are assumed to be naturally occurring, unchanging, and unchangeable.

Increasing awareness of transgender people – especially those who identify as something other than men or women – challenges this traditional structure[16], raising existential questions for some, and exciting possibilities for others.

On balance, Canadians tend to view increasing acceptance of transgender people as “a sign of social progress.” Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) agree with a statement to this effect, including 38 per cent who strongly agree (see comprehensive tables[13]).

Similarly, when asked if greater acceptance of transgender people is a sign that society is moving toward “a more fluid concept of gender,” Canadians respond as follows:

caitlyn jenner

Combining these responses another way, the graph indicates that 70 per cent of Canadians think society adopting a more fluid concept of gender – whether that’s actually happening or not – would be a good thing. The remaining three-in-ten (30%) think it would be a bad thing.

Where do transgender people come from?

Twice as many Canadians say people are born transgender (42%) as say people are transgender because of social and environmental factors (21%), though there is a significant amount of uncertainty when it comes to this “nature versus nurture[17]” question. A gender divide is also evident, as seen in the graphs that follow:

caitlyn jenner

Among self-identified women of all ages, the belief that people are born transgender is considerably stronger:

caitlyn jenner

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “being transgender is just unnatural,” more than seven-in-ten Canadians (71%) disagree.

That said, though most Canadians reject the notion that trans people are unnatural, almost two-thirds of those who believe individuals are transgender because of social and environmental factors do agree with this idea:

caitlyn jenner

Personal connections and considerations

As previously mentioned, fewer than one per cent of all respondents to this survey identify themselves as transgender.

Likewise, only a handful of Canadians (4%) say they have “a close relationship” with a transgender person. Canadians are more likely to say they have an acquaintance who is transgender (23%), if they know any trans people at all (72% don’t).

Compare this to the number Canadians who say they are personally acquainted with someone from elsewhere under the LGBT umbrella, and it becomes clear that Canadians have much less personal familiarity with trans people than they do with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people:

caitlyn jenner

In order to personalize some of the ideas in this survey, ARI asked Canadians what they would do if they had an eight-year-old child who had been showing an affinity for a gender identity other than the one the child was assigned at birth.

A strong majority (76%) say they would “accept this behaviour and work to accommodate it,” but among those in the “social and environmental factors” camp on the nature versus nurture question, a majority would “resist this behaviour and work to change it”:

caitlyn jenner

On another question aimed at personalizing one’s interactions with transgender people, those who choose “nurture” in the nature versus nurture debate are more onside with the rest of Canadians:

While members of this group are more likely to say they would be uncomfortable with a transgender person moving in next door to them, fully two-thirds (66%) say they would not be. Among all Canadians, the total who say they would be comfortable with a trans person moving in next door is 80 per cent:

bathroom law


PART 3: Transgender people and the law

Strong support for non-discrimination laws

In May, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced Bill C-16[18], which would add the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of grounds protected from discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

If the bill makes it through the Senate (something similar efforts have failed to do in previous attempts[19]), it would meet with the overwhelming approval of the Canadian public. More than eight-in-ten Canadians (84%) say they support the legislation, including a full majority (57%) who “strongly support” it:

bathroom law

Perhaps underlying this strong support for anti-discrimination laws including trans people is the fact that the vast majority of Canadians agree transgender people face a lot of discrimination and should be accommodated and protected:

bathroom law

Less consensus on identification documents

While Canadians are broadly in agreement about including gender identity in anti-discrimination legislation, this poll finds less consensus on how governments ought to handle “sex” or “gender” fields on identification documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports.

For most Canadians, whose gender identities match the genders they were assigned at birth, the “M” or “F” on their ID likely isn’t something to which they give much thought.

For transgender Canadians, however, the letter can be a source of significant frustration[20]. The rules for changing the sex designation on one’s birth certificate – from “M” to “F” or from “F” to “M” – vary from province to province[21]. Some jurisdictions still require transgender people to have undergone genital surgery in order to change their sex designation, though several provinces have dropped that requirement[22] in recent years.

Regardless of whether surgery is required or not, Canadians transitioning from one gender to another often experience periods during which their physical appearance does not align with the letter on their documents, or during which some of their documents have been changed, but not others.

Non-binary trans people – those who identify as neither men nor women – have another set of ID-related problems. Currently, no jurisdiction in Canada issues identification with a letter other than “M” or “F” on it, though Ontario plans to begin[23] allowing people to opt for an “X” in 2017.

Ontario has also begun issuing provincial health cards without any sex or gender information on the front, something some activists would like to see become the default[24] for all forms of identification.

Asked broadly how they would like to see sex/gender designations on identification documents handled, Canadians are divided:

bathroom law

As seen in the preceding graph, a “third option” is the most popular choice, though far from a majority opinion.


PART 4: Trans people in the workplace

For many Canadians, the primary place where they personally interact with transgender people is in the workplace. With this in mind, the Angus Reid Institute asked working Canadians to weigh in on how they believe someone transitioning from one gender to another would be received where they work.

The takeaway? Most working Canadians see their workplaces as “tolerant and accommodating,” and expect that approach would extend to transgender employees.

bathroom law


PART 5: The washroom debate

When transgender people need to use public washrooms, which washrooms should they use? It’s a question governments, businesses, and schools have been answering with legislation and policies in recent years.

North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2[25], for example, explicitly prohibits schools from allowing students to use any sex-separated bathroom other than the one that matches the sex listed on their birth certificate.

Other jurisdictions, including the Vancouver School Board[26], have weighed in on which washrooms transgender people should use by explicitly enshrining their right to use the facilities that correspond to their gender identities, a move that has also been controversial in some circles[27].

A specific example: Gender-variant elementary school students

This ARI survey asked Canadians to weigh in on a specific scenario in which a transgender elementary school student would like to use the facilities that correspond to their gender identity at school.

Half of the total sample was asked about a trans girl (i.e. a child who identifies as a girl, but has male genitals), and the other half was asked about a trans boy (i.e. a child who identifies as a boy, but has female genitals). In each case, roughly two-in-three Canadians say allowing the child to use the washroom that corresponds with their gender identity would be acceptable:

bathroom law

But while Canadians are in broad agreement about the acceptability of these specific scenarios, they’re fairly divided on the broader, more open-ended question of which washrooms adult transgender people ought to use.

Canadians are roughly twice as likely to say transgender people should use the sex-separated washrooms that match their gender identities (41%) as to say they should use the facilities that match their biological sex (22%). The rest, nearly two-in-five, say “it depends”:

bathroom law

Those who say “it depends” were asked a follow-up question, in which they were offered the opportunity to choose one or two factors they feel should be most important in determining which gendered public facilities trans people use:TransReplacement
Notably, just one-in-six (16%) of those who choose “it depends” in the original question say one of the main factors on which it should depend is laws and policies such as North Carolina’s – or, indeed, the VSB’s.

A larger number of respondents (25%) choose “the transgender person’s personal preference” as a determining factor.

Whose decision is it, anyway?

When a similar face-off – between individual choice and institutional policy – is posed to all Canadians, not quite six-in-ten (58%) say “transgender people should choose to use the washrooms they feel most comfortable using,” compared to 42 per cent who say “which washroom a transgender person uses should follow some pre-set rules and regulations.”

Women and younger Canadians are especially likely to say trans people should be free to choose the washrooms in which they feel most comfortable:

bathroom law

Similarly, a narrow majority (52%) of Canadians agree with the statement “government should not be involved in deciding which washrooms transgender people use.” Again, more women than men feel this way (see comprehensive tables[13]).

These findings may speak to the divergent actions governments could take on this file. “Government involvement” could mean North-Carolina-style laws requiring trans people to use washrooms based on their gender assigned at birth – something the “pre-set rules” camp might support

But government involvement could also mean something more akin to the Obama administration’s letter directing U.S. public schools[28] to allow transgender students to use the washrooms that correspond with their gender identities – a move the “trans person’s choice” camp might support.

Canadians’ overall views on these issues may be reflected in their responses to the statement “it’s appropriate that society is reconsidering the way it organizes things like gender-specific washrooms.” Roughly three-in-four (73%) agree with this (see comprehensive tables[13])


PART 6: Segmentation analysis

In order to fully analyze the data, Angus Reid Institute researchers conducted a segmentation or “cluster” analysis. This multi-variable analytical technique groups respondents into like-minded segments based on shared attitudes toward a topic.

The segments uncovered in this survey about views of transgender people in Canada are seen in the following infographic (see the full-size version here[29]):

transgender law

Trans Allies and Trans Opponents, as their names imply, take opposing positions on transgender people and issues relating to them. The Sympathetic but Uncertain, by contrast, tend to be characterized primarily by the ways in which they differ from the other two groups.

The differences between the three groups come into stark relief on questions about the nature of transgender people. Nearly all Trans Allies (99%) disagree with the statement “being transgender is just unnatural,” while 84 per cent of Trans Opponents agree with this statement. The Sympathetic but Uncertain are more divided on this question, as seen in the following graph:

bathroom law

Similarly, on the nature versus nurture question, Trans Allies are more likely to say people are born transgender, while Trans Opponents say people are transgender because of social and environmental factors. The Sympathetic but Uncertain are split between these two options, and almost half say “don’t know.”

bathroom law

These responses highlight the “uncertain” nature of the Sympathetic but Uncertain segment, but other responses make it clear that “sympathetic” is also the appropriate label for this group.

The vast majority of Sympathetic but Uncertain respondents (83%) agree that “transgender people face a lot of discrimination in their daily lives,” and that “increasing acceptance of transgender people is a sign of social progress” (81% agree). Indeed, roughly the same number (85%) support adding gender identity and expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act.

These views are all much more aligned with the Trans Allies than with the Trans Opponents, as seen in the following graph:

transgender law

The Sympathetic but Uncertain also say they would put their generally supportive attitudes into practice if they had a child who showed an affinity for a gender other than the one the child was assigned at birth.

Almost three-quarters (72%) in this segment would “accept the behaviour and work to accommodate it,” rather than resist it and work to change it, as Trans Opponents say they would:

transgender law

That said, the Sympathetic but Uncertain still have some reservations about leaving the choice of what washroom to use entirely up to transgender people. A full majority (57%) opt for “there should be some pre-set rules” option in this face-off question:

transgender law


Appendix: Notes on Methodology

To streamline analysis of this data, ARI researchers combined responses to the attention and favourability questions. This was done by assigning each respondent a “score” based on their responses to each individual question. Each “too much attention” response received one point, while each “too little attention” response received negative one. “About the right amount” responses received zero points.

Those with negative scores chose “too little attention” more often than “too much.” They are therefore considered to believe “too little attention” is paid to trans issues overall. Likewise, those with net positive scores are considered to believe “too much attention” is paid overall. Those who score a zero – either because they chose “about right” on every question, or because their positive and negative point totals cancelled each other out – form the “right amount of attention overall” group.

A similar metric was used to determine overall views on the favourability of attention paid to trans issues, with “unfavourable” responses yielding negative scores and “favourable” responses yielding positive ones. “Don’t know” responses received zero points.

Respondents in the overall favourable group have total scores above zero, while respondents in the overall unfavourable group have total scores below zero. Those who scored zero are considered “neutral.”


The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology[30]

Click here for comprehensive data tables[31]

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey[32]

MEDIA CONTACT: Ian Holliday, Research Associate: 604.442.3312

  1. the next civil rights frontier:
  2. Part 1: #part-1
  3. Part 2: #part-2
  4. Part 3: #part-3
  5. Part 4: #part-4
  6. Part 5: #part-5
  7. Part 6: #part-6
  8. Appendix: #appendix
  9. increasingly prominent in the public consciousness:
  10. media circus:
  11. the continued success:
  12. so-called “bathroom wars”:
  13. see comprehensive tables:
  14. were portrayed negatively:
  15. estimates of the overall trans population:
  16. challenges this traditional structure:
  17. nature versus nurture:
  18. introduced Bill C-16:
  19. failed to do in previous attempts:
  20. a source of significant frustration:
  21. vary from province to province:
  22. have dropped that requirement:
  23. Ontario plans to begin:
  24. become the default:
  25. controversial House Bill 2:
  26. including the Vancouver School Board:
  27. has also been controversial in some circles:
  28. letter directing U.S. public schools:
  29. see the full-size version here:
  30. Click here for the full report including tables and methodology:
  31. Click here for comprehensive data tables:
  32. Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey:

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