A portrait of transgender discrimination

March 8, 2011

Christine Darosa analyzes an unprecedented study of the lives of transgender people.

THE NATIONAL Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have released a groundbreaking study that shows the full spread and scale of discrimination against transgender people.

Called "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Study," the 220-page report is the product of a three-year project whose goal was to investigate and document the true extent of discrimination that transgender and other gender non-conforming people face every day.

According to the report and the executive summary, researchers talked to 6,456 respondents from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories, and included people across the entire spectrum of transgender identities, from people who choose to physically transition to another gender, to people who identify as cross dressers, to people who see themselves as genderqueer or as androgynous, or as something else between the two generally recognized genders.

This diversity is significant, because in addition to painting the fullest picture to date of the pervasive mistreatment that transgender people experience, the study also tells us something about the treatment that "masculine" women and "feminine" men--regardless of how they identify--in U.S. society.

Marching for transgender equality in San Francisco
Marching for transgender equality in San Francisco


THE REPORT is heart-wrenching to read, peppered with devastating statistics and direct quotes from survey participants describing their experiences.

The study found that 65 percent of respondents experienced a serious act of discrimination, defined as "events that would have a major impact on a person's quality of life and ability to sustain themselves financially or emotionally"--like an eviction, job loss, denial of healthc are, assault, incarceration or being forced to drop out of school due to harassment. Some 23 percent of respondents reported what the study describes as a "catastrophic" level of discrimination--having been impacted by at least three of these types of significant events.

The study concludes that participants "were more likely to have experienced harassment at work, at school, in the doctor's office or on the street than to have escaped such mistreatment," and that they experienced abject poverty at a much higher incidence than the general population. On every single measure, people of color experienced worse treatment and worse outcomes.

A horrifying 41 percent of respondents overall reported having attempted suicide, compared to 1.6 percent in the general population, with even higher rates among people who had been fired, bullied in school or assaulted because of their gender identity.

Overall, the report is a portrait of the effects of multiple and compounding oppressions in the United States--and how these oppressions are both institutionally enforced and a question of transphobic ideas.

The study investigated eight areas of everyday life: education, employment, health, housing, public accommodations, identification documents, interactions with police and incarceration, and family life. Disturbing levels of discrimination, harassment and violence were found to be commonplace across all eight.

In the area of education, for example, 78 percent of respondents who came out in K-12 grades were harassed by peers, and 35 percent reported being physically assaulted. Worse, 31 percent of participants reported having been harassed by teachers or staff--and 5 percent had been physically assaulted and 3 percent sexually assaulted by people who are supposed to be keeping our children safe.

As for employment, fully 90 percent of respondents reported either being harassed either verbally or physically--or having to take actions to avoid harassment--in their workplace.

Nearly half of people in the study experienced some sort of "adverse job outcome," like not being hired or promoted due to their identity, and 26 percent reported having been fired. The percentage of people participating in the study who reported their income at under $10,000 per year was four times higher than for the general population. Unemployment among transgender people is twice the national average, and among transgender people of color, it is up to four times the national rate.

The police were found to be the most problematic of all government services when it came to the treatment of transgender people. Some 29 percent of respondents overall--and 38 percent of people of color--were harassed and disrespected when interacting with the police. "My worst experience," one participant reported, "involved how the police saw me and what my Pennsylvania driver's license listed as my sex was when I was in New Jersey. I was held and verbally abused by two officers for a burned-out headlamp for about 45 minutes."

As might be expected in a society where the media continue to perpetuate myths that transgender and gender non-conforming people are "sick," a large percentage of the study's participants had negative reactions when they came out to their families & friends.

Some 57 percent experienced rejection, 19 percent experienced domestic violence, and 29 percent of people with children endured ex-partners limiting their contact with their children. The courts also intervened on the side of oppression in some cases, limiting or stopping 13 percents of respondents' relationships with their children, particularly when the respondent was a person of color.

The study found that family rejection was closely associated with homelessness, working in the underground economy, incarceration and the likelihood to attempt suicide. The study also reported, however, a surprisingly bright flip side. Nearly half of respondents maintained a majority of family relationships, the same percentage felt their family is as strong now as it was before they came out, and 70 percent reported that their children continue to speak and spend time with them.


THE REPORT ends on a further inspiring note by highlighting the perseverance and determination of transgender and gender non-conforming people to "continue to live and move forward in spite of the most daunting obstacles."

More than three-quarters of respondents who transitioned to another gender reported feeling more comfortable at work and in their lives, despite continued harassment and discrimination. Transgender and gender non-conforming people go back to school later in life at a much higher rate than the general population.

The fact that a high rates of respondents retained important social ties makes a statement about how attitudes towards transgender and gender non-conforming people are shifting toward a more tolerant, accepting posture, in spite of continued legally enforced discrimination and the resulting social sanction of the daily harassment folks endure.

Clearly, there is still very far to go, but this gives activists some insight into what's possible if we continue to press ahead for legal protections, and an end to disrespectful and violent treatment in every area of life.

There is a deep significance in the fact that the study included gender non-conforming people who don't necessarily want to transition, because it opens a window into understanding how people of any gender who don't fit the narrow norms of what's acceptable for men and women are also often mistreated. This makes a strong case for why the struggle for transgender equality is a struggle for the safety and equality of all.

Further, however, this study makes it clear that many of the issues respondents face cut across gender identity lines: economic injustice, racism, housing insecurity and lack of access to social services. And the high numbers of study participants going back to school later in life are imperiled by the same budget cuts that are putting higher education out of reach for tens of thousands of other students across the country.

The cuts to city and state social support programs are throwing transgender people into the cold--or worse, into the racist and violent hands of the criminal justice system--alongside everyone else.

Activists must make connections across our struggles and across our communities to forge the kind of links that will make all our struggles stronger.

Getting a trans-inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination Act passed and expanding unionization--strengthening our ability to stand together and defend each other from harassment and discrimination--will make us all safer in our workplaces. Fighting police brutality together across racial, gender and sexual identity lines will make us all safer in our communities. Standing united against budget cuts and austerity programs will make it harder for the rich to ride out of this recession on all our backs.

On top of the real, material gains that lie ahead if we are able to build these kinds of coalitions, our struggles will also push ahead in changing people's ideas about transgender and gender non-conforming people.

As many people have pointed out, the fight to defend collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and the struggles of people in North Africa to topple dictators mean nothing less than a return of dignity--people who have paid dearly for decades, and have received less and less, are saying "enough" and, further, are looking toward each other for solidarity and inspiration.

It's time to take a page from their book, stand up and link arms, and say "enough" to discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people--and fight for economic and social justice for all.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives