Are Two Transgender-Related Surveys Contradictory?

Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida
Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida

Two recent studies related to transgenders apparently contradict each other.

One study, entitled “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” was a joint project of the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Among the key findings: nearly ninety percent (90%) of the 6450 transgender and gender non-conforming participants surveyed had experienced job harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination. Almost half the respondents—forty seven percent (47%)–had been fired, demoted or refused employment because of their gender status. Sixteen percent (16%) had been forced to work in the underground economy of illegal sex or drug trades.

Another statistic reflects the fallout from this pattern: a staggering forty-one percent (41%) of respondents reported attempting suicide. That number climbed to fifty one percent (51%) of the transgenders who had been bullied or harassed.

This NCTE/NGLTF survey also found that almost a fifth (19%) of transgenders  experienced homelessness.  Many respondents lived in extreme poverty; they were nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000.

A second survey, issued last month, seems to paint an entirely different picture—one far rosier for transgenders. The results were summarized in a press release entitled, “New Survey: Strong Majorities Favor Rights and Legal Protections for Transgender People.” The survey was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which describes itself as a “non-profit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to work at the intersection of religion, values and public life.”  This study involved a “random digit dial telephone survey” of 2000 adults conducted in August and September, 2011.

The PRRI study focuses on attitudes of people across all walks—presumably, the straight majority. The study showed that eighty-nine percent (89%) agreed that transgenders should have the same general rights and protections as others. Additionally, three quarters (75%) of the participants believed Congress should pass laws to protect transgenders from job discrimination. A nearly equal amount (74%) favored expanding federal hate crime laws to include crimes committed because of a person’s gender identity.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, ninety-one percent (91%) of participants had heard the term “transgender.” Of those, more than two thirds (69%) could define the term  without any assistance.

How is it possible to reconcile one survey which documents transgenders as highly oppressed and another which makes them appear almost mainstream?

One explanation: the NCTE/NGLTF survey measures actual transgender experience while the PRRI study gauges societal attitudes. In other words, they deal with two different measurements, even if “transgender” is the common denominator.

Presumably, the impact of public personalities like Chaz Bono underlies the apparent greater acceptance of transgenders by straight Americans, as reflected in the PRRI survey. Additionally, the subject of the “transgender experience” has become far more widely reported in the general media. In turn, this may lend to minimizing the heretofore “freak factor” many associated with transgenders.

In other words, much of society may now understand that coming out as transgender is simply an attempt to live an authentic life.

On the other hand, the NCTE/NGLTF survey reflects the all-to-often dark side of what it’s like to actually come out as transgender. The respondents there grapple with the day to day reality of close family and friends who react negatively to the idea that a loved one is changing everything about them—appearance, name, even voice. This is where people’s attitudes get tested and hearts broken. The disappointment—and attendant  impact on the transgender individual who is trying to navigate to authenticity–shows up in the form of depression, substance abuse, and disruption in families and the workplace.

Still, numbers aren’t everything. In the NCTE/NGLTF study, one respondent wrote, “My mother disowned me. I was fired from my job after 18 years of loyal employment. I was forced onto public assistance to survive. But I still pressed forward, started a new career and rebuilt my immediate family. You are defined not by falling, but [by] how well you rise after falling.”

This personal story supports one more finding from NCTE/NGLTF: Over three-fourths (78%) of the transgenders surveyed felt more comfortable with their lives after coming out. If nothing else, transgenders—as a group—are extremely resilient.

It is fair to assume there will be more surveys of transgender experience and mainstream attitudes in the future. One can hope that conditions continue to improve for transgenders to the point that attitudes and actual experience become consistent.

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