In May, "Orange is the New Black" transgender star Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time. Earlier this month, Amazon’s “Transparent,” which focuses on a family with a transgender father, won the Golden Globe for best comedy series. And on Tuesday night, for the first time ever, a president said the word “transgender” in the State of the Union address:
As Americans, we respect human dignity…” Obama declared. “That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, hopes the mention thrusts transgender issues into more national policy discussions. “The point of the president’s speech was about economics, about making the country more livable for people in the working class and in poverty,” she said. “It wasn’t a transgender speech at all -- but just inserting the words LGBT the way he did… He’s bringing us into that dream, that promise.”
Though visibility of transgender Americans is rapidly heightening, people in the community still face discrimination from employers, housing agencies, medical providers and the military, Keisling said. They endure harassment in every aspect of their lives: at home, school, work and on the streets.
Helping to stop the discrimination, she said, starts with data collection.
Gary Gates, an LGBT demographer at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute, came up with the most frequently cited (yet greatly limited) estimates of the country’s transgender population: 700,000, or about 0.3 percent of adults.The figure comes from two surveys. One was conducted in Massachusetts in 2007 and 2009; the other in California in 2003.
The largest government-funded population surveys ask for your gender. But the U.S. Census, for example, allows for only two responses: male or female. There’s no option for transgender folks and therefore no way to broadly count them. When you can’t quantify the statistics of a group, Keisling said, you can’t understand its challenges -- or easily lobby for federal funding -- without evidence.
“We know there are disparities in the LGBT community, especially when it comes to things like housing and health care,” Keisling said. “It’s imperative to collect that data so there is a documented government interest to solve these problems.”
So far, what’s known about transgender Americans comes from comparatively small samples. In 2008, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published Injustice at Every Turn -- the largest survey yet, with only 6, 450 participants. (The same researchers are now working on a bigger update to be published next year.)
Forty-one percent of transgender people surveyed in Injustice at Every Turn said they had attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population. Risk increased for those who reported bullying, sexual assault and job loss.
Analysis this year by the Williams Institute found 78 percent of transgender respondents who had endured physical or sexual violence at school had attempted suicide.
Transgender respondents were nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000, compared to the general population, Injustice at Every Turn found. They were unemployed at twice the rate of the general population, or roughly between 10 percent and 14 percent throughout 2008, the year the survey was conducted.
One-fifth of survey respondents said they’d been homeless at some point. More than half reported being harassed at a homeless shelter by residents and staff. Nearly one-third said they were turned away altogether. Nearly a quarter said they were sexually assaulted
Four years ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published a report showing evidence “that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families are being arbitrarily excluded from some housing opportunities in the private sector.” Eleven percent of respondents reported having been evicted due to bias, according to the report, and 19 percent reported becoming homeless.
A 2010 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found most transgender respondents received some kind of transition-related medical care. However, 19 percent said they had been refused care due to their gender status, with higher numbers among people of color. Twenty-eight percent said they had been harassed in a medical setting. And half said they had to teach their medical providers about transgender care.
According to the the Injustice at Every Turn survey, 25 percent of transgender recipients reported losing a job because they did not conform to gender norms. A staggering 90 percent said they faced some form of transgender-based discrimination.
They're barred from entering military service by medical regulations, Keisling said. Potential service members must undergo a physical exam before joining. They can be rejected for evidence of genital surgery. Still, about 15,000 transgender people are currently serving in the military, according to research from the Williams Institute.