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Beyond Bathrooms: Inside the Largest Ever Survey of Transgender People in America

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On Thursday, the National Center for Transgender Equality released the largest survey of transgender people ever conducted, a deep dive that examines issues far beyond the bathroom debates that have dominated political fights over transgender rights in recent years.

“Really every minute we spend talking about [bathrooms],” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the center, “we’re not talking about the problems in real people’s lives. We’re not talking about the economic marginalization … We’re not talking about people being alienated from their faith communities and from their families.”

The U.S. Transgender Survey found that transgender people are twice as likely to be living in poverty compared to the general population and three times more likely to be unemployed. Respondents reported higher than average rates of harassment, violence and psychological distress. One-third reported issues in seeking healthcare, while 30% said they had at some time been homeless. And 40% said they had attempted to commit suicide at some point in their lifetime, compared to 4.6% of the general population.

“Undeniably our policy agenda has advanced at rocket speed” in recent years, says Keisling. “The findings of this survey make it really crystal clear that there’s more work to do.”

Nearly 28,000 people participated in the anonymous online survey, which was conducted in 2015. It built on a survey from 2011 that has been, up to now, the most comprehensive picture on transgender experiences in America. Like that one, this study will likely be cited countless times in policy debates and news articles.

There has long been a dearth of data on transgender people. Though the federal government is starting to field questions about gender identity alongside race and income in some surveys, that central source of research has “largely excluded trans people and really all LGBT people from their data collection,” says Keisling. “We’re also a very small population and we’re an emerging population … There simply are more trans people out and about than there were five years ago.”

The survey tries to highlight the positive effects of that increased visibility—including the sheer number of respondents from a demographic that is estimated to number 1.4 million in the U.S.—as well as how support from family members can help lessen negative outcomes. The majority of transgender people who had come out to their immediate family said their family was supportive, for instance, and those with supportive families were far less likely to report outcomes like experiencing homelessness and attempting suicide.

Other research has found evidence that the psychological distress transgender people experience may come more from the way they’re treated in the world, whether through social rejection or violence, than the internal disconnect between their physical bodies and sense of self.

Sharron Cooks, a transgender woman who runs a organization that supports transgender people in Philadelphia, joined a call about the results to provide a face to the statistical findings. After being rejected by her family, she dropped out of high school and turned to sex work when she couldn’t find employment elsewhere. “I know what it is like to be rejected and unsupported,” she says. With data about transgender people, “we can reduce their harm and their risk to violence. We can educate their families and school system so they are better accepted,” she adds. “And that ultimately helps shape an individual’s identity and gives them a sense of self-worth.”

The study’s lead author emphasized that beyond arming policy advocates or educators with statistics, the survey serves to prove transgender people’s very existence, much like landmark studies from previous decades proved that no politician could allege that “there are no gay people in my district.” Respondents came from all 50 states, D.C., U.S. territories and American military bases overseas, with a geographic distribution that mirrors the U.S. population at large.

“Up until now, many people across the United States have not been aware of trans people and the issues that trans people face,” says lead author Sandy James. “Trans people are their neighbors, they attend their schools and they are in the grocery store with them.” Transgender people are “part of the very fabric of the United States,” he says. “Trans people are everywhere.”

While many in the LGBT community are sounding the alarm bells about what a more conservative Trump administration might mean for LGBT rights, Keisling struck a determined note when asked about the organization’s strategy going forward. “We will move into the next administration just as assertively, just as smartly and one of the tools we’re bringing with us is this survey data,” she says. “Friend or foe, people are going to hear from us about this.”

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