By Tara Cavanaugh
When Mara Keisling, the director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, once told a doctor she was transgender, she got a terrified reply:
“He said, ‘Oh! Oh! Oh! I’m Indian!’ And then he fled the room,” Keisling told a room packed full of college students at the University of Michigan last month.
After the laughter in the room died down, Keisling’s face became serious. “That happened to me as a 50-year-old,” she said. “What if that had happened to a 17-year-old who’s been kicked out of home?”
Keisling, who was speaking to students who attended the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, shared many somber statistics from the NCTE’s survey on transgender discrimination, which was released in February and was also created with the help of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The survey is the largest ever conducted of transgender individuals, and it takes a frightening snapshot of the difficulties faced by nearly 6500 transgender people in the U.S. “We tried to find bigger studies,” Keisling said. “This is the biggest study.”
The survey results show that transgender individuals face serious barriers to meeting their basic needs, starting with employment. Ninety percent of survey respondents reported being harassed, mistreated or discriminated against on the job. Another 47 percent reported being fired, not hired or denied a promotion. These workplace struggles mean that transgender individuals are four times more likely to live in poverty (less than $10,000 a year) than the general population.
They’re also twice as likely to be homeless as the general population. And of the survey respondents who had experienced homelessness, more than half had been turned away from a shelter.
Housing discrimination is another pressing problem, Keisling said, and the issue has been recognized by Housing and Urban Development, which created rules this year saying that transgender individuals cannot be denied federal housing. Transgender individuals are only half as likely as the general population to own their own homes, and 19 percent of survey respondents said they had been denied a home or apartment.
Keisling, who regaled the audience with more humorous – and depressing – stories about the state of medical care for transgender individuals, isn’t alone in her experience. Half of survey respondents reported having to educate their doctors and medical providers about transgender care. Another 19 percent were denied care when seeking medical attention. Proper health care is particularly important for transgender individuals, especially because they have rates of HIV that are four times higher than the general population.
Overall, 63 percent of respondents experienced a “serious act of discrimination,” an event that the NCTE says “would have a major impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to sustain themselves financially or emotionally.” Such events include: loss of job, eviction, dropping out due to bullying/harassment, teacher bullying, physical and sexual assault, homelessness, loss of relationship with partner or children, denial of medial care and incarceration. Another 23 percent said they had experienced three or more events on that list. “These compounding acts of discrimination – due to the prejudice of others or lack of protective laws – exponentially increase the difficulty of bouncing back and establishing a stable economic and home life,” the NCTE writes in its executive summary of the survey.
Rachel Crandall, the director of Transgender Michigan, experienced many of the events listed above. “When I came out I lost everything,” she said. “I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost my career, I lost all my money, I lost my marriage. I had to go through a number of years when I had absolutely nothing.” But Crandall, who founded Transgender Michigan in 1997, insists “things really are getting better. But I think it’s happening slowly.” So when people tell her of their struggles, she lends a supportive ear – and she encourages them to get involved, to volunteer at places like Transgender Michigan (which is currently seeking board members). “What I tell people is to go out and fight for what you want.”
Crandall is also happy to say that she’s bounced back. “My life is so happy,” she said. “I have a wife I love, a job I love, I have a calling that I love, so it really is possible in our community.”
Even though much of the survey shows a generally grim outlook for transgender life, the NCTE does point out in its summary some results that indicate resilience. Those who maintained most of their family bonds – 43 percent of respondents – reported significantly less homelessness, jail time, suicide attempts, drug/alcohol abuse and work in sex or other underground industries. Of the 26 percent who reported losing a job to bias, 58 percent were able to find another job. And even though transgender students are much more likely to drop out, transgender adults go back to school later in life: 22 percent of respondents aged 25-44 were in school, compared to 7 percent of those in the same age group in the general population.
Keisling, like Crandall, encourages people to get involved. “Now we actually have some really good data,” she said. “It’s important to us that anyone who wants to, uses it. We want you to use it to fix things.”
March 31: International Transgender Day of Visibility
April 2: Affirmations in Ferndale hosts a Day of Empowerment from 1:30-4:30, featuring a Transgender Allies panel, a transgender townhall meeting and information on anti-bullying legislation.
Year round: Transgender Michigan provides transgender resources. Get help or get active by calling Director Rachel Crandall at 517-420-1544 or by going online at http://www.transgendermichigan.org.