Earlier this month, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) released the results of the U.S. Trans Survey (USTS), which, at 28,000 respondents, is the largest survey ever devoted to the lives and experiences of trans people. The USTS was a follow-up to the groundbreaking National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which was collected in 2008 and 2009 by the NCTE in partnership with the National LGBTQ Task Force.
The USTS gathered data from across all 50 states, other U.S. territories and military bases overseas. The survey was aimed at trans and gender-nonconforming adults (over 18), and was offered in English and Spanish, on an anonymous basis, to be completed by respondents online. Notably, more than one-third of the respondents to this survey identified as non-binary.
Compared to the 2008-09 survey, the U.S. Trans Survey asked more questions, deeper questions and more often borrowed questions from federal surveys in order to compare federal data. The survey gathered information on the experiences of trans/GNC people relating to: families, schools, workplaces, income, poverty, homelessness, sex work, violence, policing, prison and access to public accommodations, as well as many aspects of mental and physical health.
Ashe McGovern, associate director for the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, moderated a panel discussion about the survey results that was livestreamed and recorded Dec. 8. In McGovern’s words, the U.S. Trans Survey “describes significant mistreatment, discrimination, marginalization and disparities in trans communities that they experience every single day. But it also highlights the resilience that our communities have been developing in the face of these barriers.”
The findings of the report are distressing and unfortunately not surprising to those of us who are familiar with the challenges facing trans individuals across the U.S. Among the key themes, there was pervasive mistreatment and violence, with 46 percent of survey respondents saying they had been verbally harassed in the past year and nearly 10 percent physically attacked. Forty-seven percent said they had been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 10 percent in the past year.
There was also severe economic hardship and instability, as evidenced by the 15-percent unemployment rate among survey respondents, three times the rate among the general population. Also, 29 percent of the trans people surveyed live in poverty, compared to 14 percent of the general population. Thirty percent of those surveyed had been homeless at one point in their lifetime, and 12 percent had been homeless in the past year.
There were harmful effects on mental and physical health: 39 percent of respondents reported currently or recently experiencing serious psychological distress, compared to just 5 percent of the general population. Among the most striking results of the survey: 40 percent of respondents had attempted suicide in their lifetime, compared to just 4.6 percent of the general U.S. population.
Of those who had seen a health-care provider in the last year, 33 percent had at least one negative experience relating to their trans identity (which could include verbal abuse, being refused treatment or something else).
It is also important to note the compounding impact of other forms of discrimination. For example, among trans people of color, the rate of poverty is three times higher than average; it is only two times higher among all survey respondents together. HIV rates were 19 percent among black trans women who responded to the survey, whereas they were 1.4 percent among all survey respondents.
Trans people with disabilities and those who were undocumented also experienced disproportionate disparities: 50 percent of undocumented trans people had experienced homelessness, and 24 percent of them had been physically attacked. Forty-five percent of trans people with disabilities were living in poverty.
For too many people, there are not enough supports or resources to help get them back on track to an education, a career that will allow them to support themselves or to affordable housing. This is not the experience of every trans person, but even those who have access to education and employment frequently encounter barriers and discrimination related to their gender identity.
We also know that trans people face extremely high rates of family rejection, which can be devastating — especially for young people. Even those who are fortunate enough to have a supportive family or network of friends often experience discrimination and harassment in different areas of their life — at work, at school, in medical settings or simply walking down the street. People who are consistently treated as “less than,” who are routinely harassed for their appearance or physical presentation, or who are made to feel unsafe will suffer very real mental and physical consequences.
Nonetheless, there were some positive findings in the survey, specifically around increased visibility and growing acceptance. Of the survey respondents who were “out,” 60 percent said they had support from their immediate family, and 68 percent said they felt supported in their work environment. Of those who were out in school environments, 56 percent had supportive classmates.
Addressing the results, NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling noted that with growing visibility and acceptance, “our policy agenda has been moving very quickly, but the survey is a good reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
“The policy stakes couldn’t be higher,” Keisling said, adding that while we don’t know everything about policy specifics in the months and years ahead, “we have a tool now that shows lots of things that we need to be working on, and this will help with that advocacy.”
It is abundantly clear that there is much more work to be done to ensure that trans and gender-nonconforming people are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve and are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives. It will take families, educators, health-care providers, employers, activists, policy-makers and ultimately all of us to achieve this.
So what more can we all do to be advocates in our own lives and communities? Education is a great place to start. There are some great websites and resources from places like GLAAD, PFLAG and others on how to be a good ally and treat trans or gender-nonconforming people with respect.
It’s also important to elevate the voices of trans and gender-nonconforming people and to speak up and correct friends, colleagues and family members when they use language that is discriminatory or demeaning of trans folks.
Whether or not you are personally involved in this work, we all have an opportunity to do something in our lives: in the way we treat people, the way we talk about people, the ways we do (or do not) show up for people who are marginalized or vulnerable. Every one of us has a role to play in making the world a kinder, more welcoming place.
For more information, visit www.ustranssurvey.org.
Elisabeth Flynn is senior communications manager at Mazzoni Center.