How Trans Rights Go Way Beyond Bathrooms

by s.e. smith

On Thursday morning, the National Center for Transgender Equality released the U.S. Trans Survey, perhaps the most comprehensive look ever at the state of things for Americans across the gender spectrum — nearly one-third of respondents identified as nonbinary. The findings, drawn from over 27,000 survey respondents who provided data in 2015, are grim, highlighting the fact that being trans in America is still very dangerous. It's also likely to get more dangerous, because the limited legal gains trans people have managed to claw out — like the mandate for health insurers to cover transition-related care — are very likely to be rolled back by the Trump administration.

While coverage of transgender issues in the news over the last two years has mainly been about the right to use bathrooms that conform with people's actual gender identity and Caitlyn Jenner (and sometimes where Caitlyn Jenner goes to the bathroom), the issues the trans community faces are much larger than that. Hopefully, the results of the survey will highlight the scope of the trans community's lived experiences and concerns — ideally, with an eye to helping policymakers and those who want to work in solidarity with trans people better understand the work they need to do.

Here are the eight main takeaways you need to know from the U.S. Trans Survey — and what you can do to help.

Trans Rights Must Be Viewed Through An Intersectional Lens

One of the most important findings should be one of the most obvious: Some segments of the trans community face bigger social barriers than others. This includes transgender people of color and Natives (though not all Natives identify as people of color), who are, for example, more likely to live in poverty than white trans people. Latinx trans people experience a poverty rate of 41 percent, much higher than their cis counterparts, for instance. The unemployment rate of 20 percent among trans people of color and Natives is four times the national one.

Disabled trans people (including those who fit into the above categories) also face very high poverty and unemployment rates — again, higher than their cis counterparts. Forty-five percent live in poverty, while 24 percent are unemployed.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the trans community is more politically active than the United States as a whole, even in the face of voter suppression efforts that hit the trans community hard, with 76 percent of trans people registered to vote, and 54 percent participating in the 2014 midterms. Incidentally, just 2 percent of respondents were registered Republicans.

What you can do to help: Support organizations that approach transgender welfare from an explicitly intersectional perspective, like the Transgender Law Center and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Listen to members of the trans community making intersectional critiques of purported social justice organizations and make sure your money goes to the right place.

Trans Students Face Systemic Discrimination In School

The United States ostensibly offers a free public education to everyone. In practice, discrimination can interfere with the ability to obtain what should be a basic right. Among trans students, 77 percent of people who came out while in K-12 settings said that they experienced harassment and discrimination. This included punishment for clapping back at bullies (36 percent), being forced to leave school (17 percent), and, in 13 percent of cases, sexual assault. When people are being bullied and harassed, they're not learning — and that's bad for their future.

What you can do to help: Contact your senators (a quick phone call is best!) to let them know you oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for education secretary. She has a long history of financial contributions to anti-LGBQT causes, including conversion therapy.

Housing Discrimination Is A Widespread Problem For Trans People

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Respondents also reported high rates of housing discrimination, leading to an increased risk of homelessness. Thirty percent of people said they had experienced homelessness, but those seeking refuge in a shelter often found cold comfort, with 70 percent reporting harassment, intimidation, abuse, or just being kicked out of homeless shelters. It's not uncommon for trans people to be refused service, especially trans women who are informed that they aren't welcome in women's shelters — and know they won't be safe in men's. As for the American dream of a home and a white picket fence, just 16 percent of trans people owned homes, while in the general population, the home ownership rate is 63 percent.

What you can do to help: Contact your senators (a quick phone call is still best!) to let them know you oppose the confirmation of Ben Carson as housing and urban development secretary. Carson is known for his anti-LGBQT attitudes as well as his distaste for government programs that strengthen the safety net. He's also opposed to housing discrimination laws.

Equal Treatment At Work Is No Guarantee For Trans People

Employment discrimination also runs rampant in the trans community — in part because many states have no protections for trans people. It is legal to refuse to hire trans people, to deny promotions, and to fire people who come out on the job in many parts of the U.S., and employers do all of those things. Almost 80 percent of respondents hid their identities or took other steps to avoid workplace harassment, including simply quitting. Consequently, the overall trans unemployment rate is 15 percent, and 20 percent of trans people have worked in the underground economy after being cut out of mainstream employment.

What you can do to help: Contact your senators and get in touch with your representatives to ask them to revisit the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which would bar discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill was significantly weakened with a religious exception clause that led many civil rights organizations to drop their support for ENDA — ask your lawmakers to remove that clause and pass a truly comprehensive bill to protect LGBQT rights in the workplace. Also, ask your senators to oppose the confirmation of Andy Puzder, president-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of labor, as he doesn't support minimum wage and the rights of the working class.

Health Care Disparities Are Widespread In The Trans Community

Health care is another thorny issue for trans people. High poverty rates make many people reliant on Medicaid, and the Medicaid expansion provided under Obamacare may be under threat if Republicans make good on the promise to repeal or reorganize the landmark health insurance legislation. One-third of respondents said they experience discriminatory attitudes from health care providers, and many reported putting off medical appointments for fear of being mistreated. Rates of mental health issues were also quite high, including a 40 percent incidence of suicide attempts — the national average is 4.6 percent.

What you can do to help: Contact your senators to let them know you oppose the confirmation of Representative Tom Price as health and human services secretary, as Price has an aggressive anti-LGBQT record and wants to weaken or dismantle Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and government funding for Planned Parenthood. Tell them you also oppose the nomination of Seema Varma for administrator of Medicare and Medicaid services — her revamp of Medicaid in Indiana was devastating for low-income residents.

The World Is Not Safe For Trans People

Almost 60 percent of the trans community has been in negative interactions with police, and nearly the same number report that they don't consider the police a safe option to turn to when they are in trouble. Many indicated that they had been profiled by police — especially sex workers, particularly trans women of color who work in the sex industry.

But this isn't just about law enforcement interactions. Almost half of the respondents had been verbally harassed, while roughly 10 percent of the trans population has experienced physical assault in the last year. Another 10 percent reported sexual assaults within the last year — 47 percent say they have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetimes, with rates higher among vulnerable groups, like disabled trans people and trans sex workers.

What you can do to help: Contact your senators to let them know you oppose the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general. The Department of Justice is on the front lines of enforcing hate crimes laws and pushing for law enforcement reforms. Sessions historically fought against hate crimes protections for LGBTQ people and would be unlikely to enforce existing legislation or support the introduction of new laws designed to extend civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community.

Trans People Face Legalized Discrimination

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Just 11 percent of respondents have uniform government identifications matching their actual names and genders. One reason why is the cost of making changes to identifications, though complicated state laws that make it extra challenging don't help. For example, in some states people are required to show proof of gender confirmation surgery to get a court-ordered gender change for their identifications. This dehumanizing denial of identity has big implications, as it means that many people are outed by nature of their identification — every time they go through security at the airport, hand over a driver's license when pulled over, or submit ID with loan paperwork, for example.

And yes, bathroom bills are part of the challenging legal landscape, as is discrimination in public accommodations that isn't so formalized. This isn't just about laws making it impossible to pee, but hostile social attitudes — in bathrooms, locker rooms, and myriad other locales that are gender segregated. Twelve percent reported harassment in bathrooms, while 9 percent simply weren't allowed in. Some trans people limit their food and beverage consumption to avoid the issue, and 8 percent have experienced bladder and kidney infections associated with bathroom avoidance. Furthermore, 31 percent of people had been abused by retail clerks, hotel staff, and other employees in public accommodations — you can't even get to the bathroom if the waiter refuses to seat you.

What you can do: Contact your state legislators to ask them to streamline and simplify the process of updating name and gender on state identification, dropping surgery requirements if your state has them. Similarly, ask your state to adopt robust civil rights bills affirming the right of trans people to access public accommodations — or, in some cases, ask legislators to work on repealing discriminatory legislation.

Advocates Need To Change The Law And Social Attitudes

The findings of the survey illustrate, for cis people who were perhaps unaware, that this is about so much more than bathrooms. Discrimination in bathrooms is the symptom, not the disease — and the disease is systematic social discrimination, sometimes formalized through the law. Solidarity with trans people includes advocating for anti-discrimination legislation, lobbying to reduce health care disparities, and pushing to change the cultural attitudes surrounding the trans community. We already know this can't be achieved through legislation alone. If anti-discrimination law on its own resolved social inequality, protected classes like people of color and disabled people wouldn't experience the profound disparities that are a daily way of life for them.

There is a bright spot in this survey: Among trans people with supportive families, social outcomes were much better. This highlights the fact that the way we interact with people — especially trans youth — really does make a profound difference. As the trans community becomes more active and more visible, hopefully a slow sea change in social attitudes will occur. If more youth are coming out earlier in life and their families support them, rather than abusing them or kicking them out, perhaps the next generation of trans people will look upon this time as a strange, antiquated horror show.

What You Can Do: Get your state on the right side of history. This is particularly important with the incoming administration, as we cannot count on the federal government to craft comprehensive civil rights laws. In fact, the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which effectively legalizes anti-LGBQT discrimination in any context, is likely to return to Congress, and may pass — so get your dialing fingers ready for the minute it hits the floor.