October 11, 2011

A Look At The Lives Of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Adults

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey highlights the lives and experiences of over 6,000 transgender and gender non-conforming adults in the US.

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Happy National Coming Out Day!  Today, like every October 11th, we celebrate the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, take pride in being “out of the closet,” and reflect on how far we have to go to achieve full sexual and gender equality.  An important part of this celebration is acknowledging the diversity even within LGBT communities and, more importantly, raising awareness about the unique experiences of subgroups within the larger LGBT population.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey

Before Chaz Bono, author and transgender son of Cher and Sonny Bono, joined the show Dancing With the Stars, transgender people gained more visibility with the release of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  This survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, captures a glimpse of the lives of over 6,000 transgender and gender non-conforming adults in the United States.  The results of the survey, which I summarize below, provide a picture of this population’s experiences with prejudice and discrimination, in employment, health care, and education, and their demographic profile (e.g., race, age, income).

Who Are Transgender And Gender Non-Comforming People?

Although the use of the acronym LGBT is intended to be as inclusive as possible, we actually lump several unique subpopulations together in referring to “transgender” people (the T in LGBT).  Although still lumping multiple groups, one important distinction is between transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.  Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals share their distinction from cisgender people in that their gender identity and/or gender expression differs from (or does not “match”) their sex assigned at birth.

For many transgender people, namely transsexuals, this entails planned (“pre-op”), partial, or complete (“post-op”) transition from their sex assigned at birth to their current gender identity; however, many transgender people do not pursue such surgical or hormonal treatment (“non-op”).  The reasons for forgoing this transition vary, including the high costs that are typically not covered by health insurance or lack of health care access all together, disinterest in or limited options to physically altering one’s body, or fear of the potential side effects of surgery or taking hormones.  Gender non-conforming individuals differ in their gender expression in that they fall outside of (e.g., a third gender) or somewhere in between (e.g., androgyny) the traditional gender binary (female and male).

As I noted above, both of these terms represent multiple subgroups.  Within the umbrella of transgender, there are individuals who identify as transgender, MTF (male-to-female) or transwomen, FTM (female-to-male) or transmen, transsexual, and two-spirit.  The umbrella of gender non-conforming includes individuals who identify as gender non-conforming, genderqueer, cross-dresser, androgynous, third gender, feminine male, masculine or butch female, aggressive, as well as drag kings and drag kings.  Yet, for some individuals, these categories overlap or co-exist, most notably intersex people, whose biological sex (including chromosomes, anatomy, and hormones) does not neatly fit into female or male.

It is of crucial important to distinguish these gender identities and expressions from sexual orientation and identity; although some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people are also transgender or gender non-conforming, gender identity/expression is a distinct personal and social characteristic from sexual orientation/identity.

The Lives Of Transgender And Gender Non-Conforming People

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey offers an extensive look at the lives and experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming adults in the United States, including a look at the economic and employment profile and health profile of this population.  You can see the executive summary here and the full report here, as well as video overview here.  The survey offers a number of important key findings:

  • Over 40% of respondents reported attempting suicide at some point in the past, compared to the 1.6% in the general (predominantly cisgender) population.  The rates of suicide attempts are much higher among transgender and gender non-conforming adults who have been unfairly fired from a job, harassed or bullied in school, physically or sexually assaulted, and/or who live in poverty.
  • Many respondents live in extreme poverty.  In fact, this population is four times more likely than the general population to live in households with annual incomes less than $10,000.
  • Among transgender and gender non-conforming adults who were “out” in elementary, middle, and/or high school, the majority were harassed, one-third were physically assaulted, and 12% were raped or sexually assaulted.  These experiences with violence were so severe that they led 15% to leave school.
  • Respondents are twice as likely as the general population to be currently unemployed.  For racial and ethnic transgender and gender non-conforming adults, the rate is four times the general population.  Almost half reported being unfairly fired, denied a job or promotion, and 50% reported being harassed at work.  The majority have avoided discrimination by either hiding their gender identity/expression or delaying their gender transition.
  • A substantial number have faced housing discrimination, and have been homeless at some point because of their gender identity/expression.
  • Over half have faced harassment or disrespect in public accommodations, including hotels, restaurants, public transportation, and government agencies.
  • Overall, transgender and gender non-conforming people report higher rates of HIV infection, alcohol and drug use, and smoking.  Many have either faced discrimination in health care or been denied care altogether.  Half reported that they have had to teach their medical providers about transgender care.
  • Over 50% have been rejected by some or all of their family members because of their gender identity/expression.  HIV incidence and attempt suicide rates are substantially lower among those whose families are accepting.

Now What?

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey is an important and overdue assessment of the state of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals’ lives in the United States.  Now, with more insight into this populations’ experiences with transphobic prejudice and discrimination, poverty, family rejection, and illness, advocates, politicians, medical professionals, and researchers can make steps to improve the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming people.  For example, these findings suggest that LGBT activists’ focus on ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, same-sex marriage, and other issues of sexual equality must also include pushing for social change that addresses the unique needs of transgender and gender non-conforming people.  It also means seriously rethinking access to various institutions (e.g., college), as well as services and care (especially medical care), that continue to use the traditional gender binary of female and male.

While increasing visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people is an important first step, there remains a great deal of work to improve the lives of this population and ensure equal status for all regardless of gender identity and expression.