The Hardship And Discrimination Plaguing The Transgender Community In the Nation’s Capital

The new Whitman-Walker Health clinic that serves D.C.’s LGBT community. CREDIT: WHITMAN-WALKER HEALTH
The new Whitman-Walker Health clinic that serves D.C.’s LGBT community. CREDIT: WHITMAN-WALKER HEALTH

Washington, D.C. has some of the nation’s most extensive nondiscrimination protections for transgender people, but a new study of the capital’s trans residents shows that protections alone don’t alleviate their burdens of discrimination and destitution.

The D.C. Trans Coalition (DCTC) is releasing its results Friday afternoon in a report called Access Denied: Washington, D.C. Trans Needs Assessment Report. The group surveyed over 500 trans people who live in the district or in the immediate metro area, collecting information about their experiences with education, economic security, housing, health care, and public safety. In many ways, the results resemble the rates of discrimination revealed in the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, but with such a large concentrated sample, Access Denied reveals even more disparities, particular along racial lines.

Elijah Adiv Edelman, principal investigator for the study, told ThinkProgress that the results are “overwhelming,” demonstrating that trans people experience 10–20 times the average American’s rate of poverty, assault, and homelessness. “D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in,” he pointed out. “The fact people are making as little as they are is pretty extreme. It’s different to make $20,000 in rural Ohio than in urban DC.”

The study comes just weeks after the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OCR) published its own study revealing rampant job discrimination against trans people through résumé testing. Edelman lauded the improvement in OCR’s outreach efforts, noting that in the past, it “has not been terribly responsive to issues.” Access Denied found similarly high rates of workplace discrimination, but Edelman notes proving discrimination is difficult. “Even if someone says to you, ‘I’m not hiring you because you’re trans,’ it can still be complicated.”


A notable result was the fact that trans people did not necessarily feel safe in spaces that identify themselves as LGBT-friendly. “The majority had to do educating or experienced hostility,” Edelman explained. For example, “A lot of people will say Whitman-Walker is a good place to go if you’re trans,” he said, referring to the LGBT health clinic, but “others will say absolutely not and choose to self-administer hormones.” There’s a long history of trans people not trusting systems of power and agencies that are supposed to support them, and organizations that claim to be trans-friendly are still “dropping the ball” when it comes to dismantling that distrust.

Numerous recommendations accompany the survey’s results. Among them is the need for campaigns and programs that feature “familiar faces” — other trans people that might be known throughout the community. “You don’t necessarily have to have trans people to do anything trans related,” Edelman explained, “but you can’t do something trans related and have no trans people involved.” Employing peer education models will ensure that the people who need support the most feel safe and comfortable to access those resources.

Though the results paint a dismal picture for what transgender people face, Edelman doesn’t think the problem is incredibly complicated:

Give every single trans person enough money to live off. That would fix a lot of things. Why do they do the [underground/grey economy] work they do? Why are they homeless? Why are they not seeking out medical help? They need jobs that pay a living wage.

What’s the easiest solution? Make sure people are getting hired. Make sure there are ways that people can get the training and education they need to get jobs.

He hopes that people look at the survey and think about how to address these issues. Rather than just focusing on the disappointing results, “We want this to be a wake-up call that DC agencies, government, human resources, and people have failed trans people in a major way. What policies can be put in place? What’s practically going to happen? How will organizations shift how they do things? I don’t want people to look at these numbers and just say, ‘Wow, this really sucks.’ Say, ‘What do we need to do to fix that?’”

Here is a glimpse at just some of the survey’s results:


  • Trans people were less likely to have an associate degree or higher (42 percent) than the D.C. average (55 percent). Huge racial gaps exist within that group; 66 percent of white trans people had finished an associate degree or higher compared to just 14 percent of black and 15 percent of Hispanic trans people.
  • Trans people who did not have an associate degree were three times more likely (47 percent) to be unemployed than those who did (16 percent).
  • Trans people who had a bachelor’s degree were still five times more likely (14 percent) to be unemployed than D.C. residents with a bachelor’s degree (3 percent).
  • Of the respondents who attended high school in D.C., 49 percent of those who experienced bullying and harassment ultimately dropped out of school.

Economics and Income

  • Compared to D.C. residents, trans respondents were four times more likely to make less than $10,000 (46 percent vs. 11 percent) and four times more likely to be unemployment (36 percent vs. 9 percent).
  • Over half of trans respondents work at least one job in the underground/grey economy. Those who do are significantly more likely to be victims of violence — 49 percent have been physically assaulted due to being perceived as transgender compared to 42 percent of trans respondents overall.
  • Over 40 percent of trans respondents had been denied at least one job due to being perceived as trans. Among trans people of color, the number climbed to 49 percent.
  • In the workplace, 13 percent of respondents experienced physical assault. That number was higher for people of color (21 percent), but lower for those with an associate degree or higher (6 percent).

Housing and Homelessness

  • 20 percent of those who took the survey were currently experiencing homelessness. They were significantly more likely to be HIV positive (43 percent vs. 16 percent) and to be trans feminine (28 percent vs. 6 percent).
  • Half of those experiencing homeless relied on informal or grey economic work for income, such as sex work. Over a quarter reported having sex with people in order to live with them.
  • Of those that have lived in a shelter, 41 percent had been physically or sexually assaulted by shelter inmates or staff.
  • Black (30 percent) and Hispanic (33 percent) trans individuals were three times more likely to be denied a lease than white trans individuals (9 percent).

HIV Status and Health

  • 20 percent of trans respondents reported being HIV positive, nearly seven times the prevalence of D.C. (3 percent). An “astounding” 75 percent of those who were HIV positive were people of color, and 90 percent were among trans feminine respondents.
  • Roughly 60 percent of trans individuals were uninsured or insured through public or family-contingent insurance.
  • 19 percent reported being denied medical care at least once due to being perceived as transgender.
  • 60 percent had seriously considered suicide, 34 percent had attempted suicide, and 42 percent had used drugs like heroin, cocaine, PCP, or methamphetamines.

Assault and Violence

  • Among respondents, 74 percent had been verbally assaulted, 42 percent physically assault, and 35 percent sexually assaulted.
  • Compared to trans masculine respondents, trans feminine respondents were far more likely to experience physical assault (57 percent vs. 17 percent) and sexual assault (47 percent v. 14 percent).
  • Compared to white respondents black and Hispanic trans persons were far more likely to experience physical assault (54 and 60 percent vs. 21 percent) and sexual assault (47 and 56 percent vs. 14 percent).