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National Transgender Survey Could Be A Gamechanger

Precious Davis is one of many people who have helped raise awareness about the U.S. Trans Survey over the past year. CREDIT: NATIONAL CENTER FOR TRANSGENDER EQUALITY
Precious Davis is one of many people who have helped raise awareness about the U.S. Trans Survey over the past year. CREDIT: NATIONAL CENTER FOR TRANSGENDER EQUALITY

August 19 marks the launch of the new U.S. Trans Survey, developed and supported by a coalition of LGBT groups and researchers, and over the next month, thousands of transgender people will complete the module, documenting their experiences in employment, housing, health care, and the criminal justice system. This will provide one of the most extensive glimpses into what it’s like to be transgender in the United States.

The new survey follows the success of the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), which was developed and conducted by the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in 2008- 2009. Mara Keisling, executive director of NCTE, explains that they hoped that the NTDS would have gotten 1,500 responses, but it actually got more than four times that — 6,400. The data from the NTDS has been cited countless times (Keisling estimates over 15,000 times in the media), particularly its findings about the rates of trans suicide attempts, homelessness, employment discrimination, and health care discrimination. It also provided some of the first insights about the rates at which transgender people have surgery as part of their transition.

Some 14,000 transgender people have pledged to take the new survey. Given estimates from the Williams Institute that there are about 700,000 transgender people in the country, this means 2 percent or more might complete the survey. If 2 percent of the entire U.S. population took a survey, that’d be over 6 million respondents. Organizers are hoping the increased size of the new survey will provide more insights about subgroups like seniors, people of color, immigrants, sex workers, and military service members and veterans, as well as allow for more state-specific analysis.

But the new survey isn’t just bigger, it’s also qualitatively better. Sandy James, NCTE’s Survey Project Manager, told ThinkProgress that many of the questions have been improved. Thanks to updated technology over what was used for the NTDS, the U.S. Trans Survey uses a skip-logic model will make sure that respondents are asked follow-up questions that reflect their experiences. More importantly, the questions have been tailored so that the results can be easily juxtaposed against other national studies. For example, questions about income will align with questions from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey so that the information about trans people can be compared with national averages. Similar validated scales were added for physical and mental health measures.

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As such, the goal of the survey is compensate for the invisibility of transgender people in other research. Jody Herman, who serves as Williams Institute Scholar of Public Policy and is also working on the survey, explained to ThinkProgress, “One of the most challenging parts about studying the trans community as a whole is that nearly all the key U.S. surveys that we use to learn about the U.S. population, like the Census, do not identify trans people. Both large and small scale studies are needed to fill vast knowledge gaps about the trans population in the U.S. The USTS is one of those large-scale efforts.”

She is already anticipating opportunities to use the information. At the Williams Institute, which conducts research on LGBT law and public policy, they are working on a separate study using the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll to identify a nationally-representative sample of trans-identified adults. With this large sample, Herman says, “we can create what are called ‘weights’ for part of the USTS sample to make it nationally-representative. It’s groundbreaking work and will impact research about trans people in the U.S. in a profound way.”

The new survey has also been set up to measure how societal acceptance of transgender people changes over time. Instead of just a one-time look at the trans community like the NTDS offered, the USTS is set up to take place every five years. Many questions will now focus on what trans people have experienced “in the past year” instead of just what they experienced ever over the course of their lives. That way, when the survey occurs again in 2020 and henceforth, the results can be compared to see what may have improved since the last survey.

Some opponents of transgender equality have been critical of the survey’s methods. Elizabeth Hungerford, a radical feminist who advocates against protections for transgender people, has promised to try to sabotage the data, calling the internet survey “a direct result of the mindlessness of identity politics.” Despite not being trans, she pledged to take the survey and encouraged others to do the same. Apparently, asking transgender people exactly what they experience is “not how you INFORM public policy or UNDERSTAND trans people.”

But James is not worried about such efforts tainting the results. “She is incorrect about her claims to undermine the survey,” he told ThinkProgress. Not only does the skip-logic format make it much harder to sabotage, the data will also be analyzed and cleaned to eliminate inconsistencies. Because transgender people make up such a small segment of the population, this targeted effort is “the best way we have to reach a sample compared to the general population.” The survey, he promised, is “very methodologically sound” and its validity has been tested.

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In its first day open, the survey is already struggling to accommodate how many people are trying to take it. An update on the page notes, “Our servers are doing their best to keep up with the demand and we thank you for your patience. If you have trouble taking the survey now, know that it will be available to take through at least September 21st.” Results will likely be available sometime in early to mid 2016.