The American Transgender Population Is Larger Than We Thought It Was

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/J. BICKING
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/J. BICKING

Determining how many transgender people there are in the U.S. has been challenging for a number of reasons, but a new study from the Williams Institute estimates that there are approximately 1.4 million of them — twice as many as were previously estimated. That’s 0.6 percent of the population.

The previous best estimate came from Gary Gates at the Williams Institute. Based on data available from two small state studies, he determined that about 0.3 percent of the population identified as transgender.

Neither number might actually account for the actual answer to the question of how many transgender people there are, and there are numerous reasons for this.

The biggest problem is that the census doesn’t ask individuals to identify their gender identity, so it provides little insight into the transgender population. The Social Security Administration can track name changes that changed gender — 21,833 as of 2010 — but that’s not an actual measurement of how many transgender people there are.

Without nationwide data collection tools, the strategy has been to use statewide studies that might ask people to identify their gender identity. Gates’ study, for example, extrapolated results from a health survey in Massachusetts and a survey about tobacco use in California.

The new study was possible because the Center for Disease Control added gender identity as an optional question to the survey that is part of its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Nineteen states opted to include the question, and statistical models then helped to estimate the results for the entire country. There still hasn’t been a nationwide mechanism for actually conducting a census of transgender people.

Democratic members of Congress recently introduced the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which would require all federal surveys, including the census, to invite respondents to identify their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Even if data collection efforts improved in ways that were more inclusive of gender identity, however, it still might not capture the entire trans population. In the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 71 percent of respondents indicated that they had hid their gender or gender identity to protect themselves from discrimination. When faced with an official government survey asking them to disclose their gender identity, there’s no guarantee that every person who identifies as transgender will necessarily say so.

Likewise, there may be people who know that they are transgender but have not identified as such to anybody — perhaps not even to themselves. The increases in visibility and acceptance in society are already making it easier for these people to not only come out, but to do so at younger ages, but there are still significant challenges in doing so.

Conservatives have bemoaned accommodating the transgender community with nondiscrimination protections and access to bathrooms because it is so small. Donald Trump, whose position on transgender equality has been inconsistent at best, even said that the transgender population is “tiny, tiny.” With this new study, he may need to drop at least one of those “tiny”s.