Where are the data on minority trans communities?

Until very recently, almost no data specifically addressing discrimination against the trans community were available, beyond extremely limited datasets, many with biased samples—like self-reporting individuals from a small geographic or demographic base. Hearing, for example, from a group of white transgender people in an affluent region of a city doesn’t really provide a broad spectrum of information about transphobia and discrimination. Over time, that’s beginning to change, with numerous LGBQT surveys and organisations collecting data on the trans community and finally understanding that gender and sexual orientation are different, and need to be treated differently in surveys, data collection, and data analysis.

But there’s still a glaring group within the trans community that isn’t addressed: Trans minorities. In this case, I don’t mean trans people with intersectional issues (though there are limited data on, for example, disabled trans people and trans people of colour), but specifically trans people who do not fall along the binary. There’s a huge spectrum of trans identity, and exploring those identities provides more information about the demographics of the trans community, but also offers insight into the specific issues that these people face.

Note that I’ve been careful to avoid using the term ‘nonbinary.’ That’s a very specific choice, because it’s a term with particular associations. It’s primarily a Western, Europeanised concept and it’s rooted in those understandings of gender, not encompassing all relationships with gender worldwide, including even in Europe and the Americas. Two-spirit people, for example, do not necessarily identify themselves as nonbinary or even transgender. Hijra and muxe, again, have a different relationship with gender and can’t be forcibly labeled as ‘nonbinary’ and left at that.

In terms of researching the trans community, as in any research, we need to first define what we are researching. That means a comprehensive survey of the transgender and gender nonconforming communities to learn more about how people are identifying themselves, and to study representation within these groups. We all might be surprised by the number of people identifying as transgender or gender nonconforming, for example, and statistical insights into how many people identify as genderqueer, or genderfluid, or agender, could be important. Likewise, evaluating relationships to gender that sit outside the Western paradigm is important, as they need to be treated with their own complexities and can’t be sandwiched into ‘transgender’ as defined by the West.

You can’t collect data on a population if you don’t know who’s in it, and this is a fundamental flaw of current data collection practices with the trans community. People might feel as though they don’t belong in a given survey because it doesn’t provide areas for them to identify correctly, which means they’re not going to fill it out, or leave it incomplete, and this represents lost data, which is not a good thing. It also makes it harder to dig into the specifics of nuanced data. When it comes to people who identify as nonbinary, for example, are there racial components to the phenomenon? (Many people claim that nonbinary identities are a ‘trend’ among white people, though evidence suggests this is not the case, but we need hard data.) We also need to explore the racial makeup of individual identities—what’s the racial balance within the agender community? How many Asian people identify as genderfluid? And, of course, we need to be looking at issues like class, disability, educational attainment, and so many other factors, to see how they interplay with trans identities and the way people define and express themselves—and at what age. (Are people of higher classes more likely to identify as trans earlier in life? Do disabled people have difficulty being accepted for their gender?)

Once you establish who’s in a population, you can start getting into the phenomena witnessed and experienced by that population. That means delving into subjects like discrimination and oppression. We don’t have any hard statistics on employment discrimination, housing discrimination, sexual assault rates, physical assault rates, health care discrimination, and more for people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, but aren’t binary. That means we can’t serve those populations at all, or identify issues unique to them. It also invalidates many of their own experiences and makes it difficult to push back when society informs them that they aren’t discriminated against or don’t need to be considered differently from the binary trans communities when developing approaches to transphobia and oppression.

As Adrian Ballou writes at Everyday Feminism, nonbinary erasure is a serious problem, and it’s also a violent problem. The insistent belief, for example, that nonbinary people do not experience physical or sexual assault because of their gender identity and expression is wrong, as can be patently proved by looking at the news, but we don’t have research and statistics to see how common it is overall (three cases a year? thirty? three hundred?), to see what percentage of people report it (30 percent of genderqueer people? 43 percent of agender people?) and to see how it’s dealt with (treated as ordinary assault by law enforcement? prosecuted as a hate crime? written off by college administrators?).

We need to be collecting these data and we need to be supplementing existing surveys of the trans community with this information. If we don’t, we have an incomplete picture of the trans and gender nonconforming spectrum, which means that we can’t adequately supply services to all the people who need them. This varies from training for victim advocates to easier transition care for people outside the binary to anti-discrimination ordinances that specifically identify all transgender identities. This isn’t about Oppression Olympics or a zero sum game, but in fact the opposite: Equality for the trans community isn’t one size fits all, and it’s a disservice to everyone to treat it as though it is. Trans women face different issues than trans men. Genderqueer people face different issues that agender people. Genderfluid people face different issues that genderfuck people…

So where are these data?

Image: Transgender, Kannan Mutharaman, Flickr