Counting the Transgender Community

Transgender people live with a bull's-eye on their back. Anyone who denies this fact -- so hard for some to swallow in the wake of recent victories on marriage equality and "don't ask, don't tell" for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people -- is due for a wake-up call. Today, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) released "Injustice at Every Turn," a report based on the results of what is by far the country's largest transgender discrimination survey to date -- with 6,450 participants to the next largest study's 700.

This is important. Currently most surveys -- including the census and epidemiological studies -- contain zero questions about sexual orientation, never mind gender identity and expression. The consequences of not being counted, of being invisible, is that no one knows who constitutes the transgender community, what its members experience, or what their challenges or needs are. The many costs to transgender people include the fact that they are allotted little if any funding or resources on the state or federal level. That's even true of resources spread within an LGB community that often forgets the "T."

The organizations responsible for the new survey are working to correct for that. As Mara Keisling, NCTE's executive director says, "A lot of people think the plural of anecdote is data, but that's not true. Some of what we got supported what we always assumed. Some of it is very new." She referred to the 41 percent of respondents who had attempted suicide as "the most shocking number in the report," noting, "That's 26 times the national average." It's higher even than rates among members of the military and people diagnosed with chronic depression.

The rest of the report's clear, cold numbers illuminate what happens when discrimination in everything from health care, employment, housing, and education is pervasive -- and often, perfectly legal.

Respondents were four to five times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty, with an annual household income of less than $10,000 at all levels of educational attainment. Those surveyed were twice as likely to be unemployed; 26 percent had lost a job because they were transgender, though if you factor in not being hired in the first place or denied a promotion, that number rises to 47 percent. A full 90 percent of respondents reported harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace. The statistics for transgender and gender nonconforming people grow even worse when race is factored in, with transgender people of color faring worse than white participants across the board. But there was some good news, too: Nearly 80 percent of respondents reported feeling more comfortable at work and their performances improving after transitioning.

There's a direct link between being able to earn an above-board living, having stable housing, and staying alive. The results of facing continual job discrimination, combined with being refused housing (19 percent) or being evicted (11 percent), and having a nearly 1-in-5 chance of being homeless at some point, are not only painful, stressful, or unhealthy but catastrophic. Those who have been fired due to anti-transgender bias are far more likely to enter the underground economy, where sex work and drug sales expose participants to a range of increased risks, including incarceration and a higher incidence of intravenous drug use and HIV (with rates in the survey at four times the national average). No wonder respondents, when asked to list their policy priorities, threw the biggest numbers (70 percent) behind protection for transgender/gender nonconforming people from discrimination in hiring and at work.

Transgender people often suffer harm from the very systems designed to protect most citizens. Twenty-two percent report being harassed by police, but the problem extends beyond law enforcement. In 1995, D.C. resident Tyra Hunter died from entirely treatable injuries incurred in a car accident. First, the firefighters who arrived at the scene stopped emergency medical treatment once they cut away her clothes to discover male genitalia. (One witness reported hearing a firefighter say, "This bitch ain't no girl. ... It's a nigger, he got a dick.") Once they stopped joking around and got her to the emergency room, the doctor refused to treat her. She died there of blunt force trauma and medical negligence. Fifteen years after Hunter's death, the survey's numbers still stink: 19 percent of respondents reported being refused care because of their gender identity or expression, with even higher figures for respondents of color. Nearly 3 percent reported being attacked in emergency rooms.

It doesn't have to be like this. There are over a dozen states, plus 134 cities and counties that have transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination laws on the books that create protections -- and make offenders liable for violating them. For example, Hunter's mother was able to sue the District of Columbia, the firefighter, and the emergency-room physician because of D.C.'s 1997 Human Rights Act. As Lisa Mottet, one of the authors of the report and the director of NGLTF's Transgender Civil Rights Project, says, "Changing your policies and treating people with respect is important. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out how to do this with trans people. There just has to be the will to change it."

Of course, that's easier said than done. Nondiscrimination bills that protect transgender people face stiff opposition at both the passage and implementation stages. That's true even in D.C., which passed a transgender nondiscrimination law in 2006 and leads the country in transgender rights. "At first, the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) flatly refused to consider our suggested policy changes," said Alison Gill, an attorney for the D.C. Trans Coalition (DCTC). "Officials were openly mocking our requests and literally taking naps during meetings."

Gill credits the DOC with "eventually recognizing that the protections afforded by the D.C. Human Rights Law apply even to them" and setting up a transgender housing committee -- vital in prison settings, where transgender women thrown in with male prisoners are routinely sexually assaulted. Still, the DOC won't let DCTC do trainings for their staff, fails to make inmates and staff aware of the new policies, and has blocked transgender community members from participating on the housing committee. Victories, while momentous, are not yet complete.

Of course, legal changes at the federal level would offer the broadest possible protections for transgender and gender nonconforming people. But don't expect them anytime soon. Discrimination against trans people is still legal in 38 states -- and against LGBT people in 29 -- and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit such discrimination, was never brought to a vote on the floor by the House leadership during the last Congress. This despite the fact that ENDA is, per Metro Weekly reporter Chris Geidner, "the longest-standing piece of legislation, in one form or another, sought by LGBT advocates."

ENDA was shelved by the House leadership in favor of  repealing "don't ask, don't tell," and Keisling, for one, is not afraid to speculate why. ''It had to do with there being staff members in leadership who were afraid of the trans part,'' she said. ''And leadership stalled on it. They stalled and they stalled.''

Still, Mottet, from the task force, has not given up on the power of change on the local or even individual level. "Here's one of the major take-home messages we want for people: Discrimination and the disrespect transgender people experience every day whether at home or in school or on the streets is devastating and life threatening," she says. "It's our job to make sure that the transgender people we encounter in our daily lives are treated with respect. If we all did that, this country would be transformed."

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