Study: Discrimination Takes A Toll On Transgender Americans

More than 40 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide. That's according to a new, first-of-its-kind survey into discrimination against people who express a gender identity different to the one with which they were born. Host Michel Martin discusses the findings and experiences within transgender communities with Jaime Grant and Michelle Enfield, a transgender woman who was born a biological male.

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MICHELE MARTIN, host:

I'm Michele Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program we remember Geraldine Ferraro. She died this weekend.

But first, it's time to go behind closed doors as we often do on this program, to talk about issues people usually keep private. And today we dig into a first of its kind survey on the lives of transgender people. That is to say, people who express a gender identity that is different from the one with which they were born.

The survey was conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, and it describes difficulties in many areas - problems in housing and employment, for example. But one number really jumps out. Some 41 percent of respondents said they had attempted suicide.

To learn more, we've called upon Jaime Grant. She's one of the lead authors of the survey. She joins us from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she runs the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.

For additional perspective, we also have with us Michelle Enfield. She is a transgender woman who was born a biological male. She's now studying at the Los Angeles Community College and working for the AIDS Project Los Angeles.

And for the sake of this discussion, we also want to point out that she's Native American, because she wants to talk about some particular cultural issues too that she's confronted. She's with us from Los Angeles.

And on a quick note, I want to mention this discussion will include adult topics, and the language may not be appropriate for all listeners. So with that being said, Michelle Enfield and Jaime Grant, welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. JAIME GRANT (Kalamazoo College): Thanks for having us.

Ms. MICHELLE ENFIELD: Thank you.

MARTIN: This study presents some very stark findings. High rates of unemployment, lots of reports of mistreatment at work. But before we dig into the findings, I do want to ask you about methodology. The data comes from some - more than 6,000 participants who are least 18 years old. They come from all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

But I do want to ask you about how you found the respondents. Because reasonable people might ask, this is an advocacy group which is presenting the survey, and people might say, well, is this what you found because this is what you're looking for?

Dr. GRANT: Surveys on family life do not ask questions on sexual orientation or gender identity. So community advocacy groups have to do that work that the government and the general population does not do, which is just sort of track what goes on in our communities so that we can look at what our needs are.

We spent a year calling transgender-led and transgender-serving organizations all over the country and asking them to provide a contact person who would disseminate this survey in the communities they were working in.

So our sample is a bunch of folks who are connected in some way to transgender LGBT communities through organizations, some of them social, cultural, family oriented, anything that you can imagine.

MARTIN: Jaime, what figures stood out for you? The attempted suicide figure stood out for me because it speaks to me a real sense of despair. What stood out for you?

Dr. GRANT: Yes. For those of us doing this work, we were all shocked by that figure, even though we certainly know this is a huge issue in our communities. One of the things about this study is it looks at housing, health care, education, employment, public accommodation, police and criminal justice, family life. There's never been of transpeople before this that looks at the breadth of their experience and their life experience.

And we did find, in every one of these domains, harassment, ridicule, abuse, rejection, in outsized, astounding kind of terms. So if you look at that and line that all up against each other, the suicide figure is the outcome.

MARTIN: Michelle, do you mind, start us by telling us your story of how you came to feel that you were more of a Michelle than a Michael, how about that.

Ms. ENFIELD: I grew up on the reservation, the Navajo reservation, and historically I want to let you know that transgenders - well, actually this is the Western term. For Navajos it is nagleh(ph). And what that defines is a role in a community, and what we did for our community - that is, we played both roles, such as the masculine role of going out and trapping firewood and doing household chores, but also the feminine side such as taking care of children, washing dishes, and cooking meals and what have you.

And so I knew something was different from a very, very young age. And growing up, I had always heard the term gay and (bleep) and queer and what have you, and from my definition of that, I didn't understand that I was that, and I didn't know of the term transgender until I was a sophomore in high school. This was like a light-bulb moment.

MARTIN: How did your family and friends and community respond to this?

Ms. ENFIELD: My family just sort of - it wasn't a talked about. It wasn't discussed. The community was very harsh, especially in high school. I went through many sexual assaults, and also physical assaults. So for the most part, it wasn't too great of a childhood.

MARTIN: I think many people might remember the film "Boys Don't Cry," where Hilary Swank portrayed a person in real life, a biological girl, who was living as a boy, and that this was perceived as so provocative, that the boy was alternately killed. And this is based on a real story.

Ms. ENFIELD: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that people who live outside the gender in which they were born or who present this are so challenging to other people?

Ms. ENFIELD: It plays a part in what they actually feel, like their own curiosities. And I know what universally attractive is. Not to toot my own horn, but I am universally attractive. And so I think it threatens their sexuality, especially when a male finds a transgender attractive, they can't accept the transgender for the beautiful person that they are.

MARTIN: People feel misled, or they feel like they've been tricked.

Ms. ENFIELD: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: And that makes people angry. Now, Michelle, before I go back to Jaime, I just wanted to ask: Have you ever had difficulty finding work because of your transgender identity?

Ms. ENFIELD: Yes, I have. Before I had my name legally changed, I presented as, and what was down on paper didn't match. And so therefore, it was very confusing to the employer. And after legally changing my name, when employers would find out that I was or that I am transgender, I was fired, as well as also sexually harassed a couple of times and...

MARTIN: You were fired? Why? Was it perceived to have affected your work in some way?

Ms. ENFIELD: I mean, there are a number of ways that people can fire transgenders, and it doesn't necessarily have to be because of their transgenderism.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ENFIELD: I'll give you one example. I was working as a waitress in a hotel restaurant, and the manager found out that I was transgender. And I had been working a set schedule for several, several months. And after he found out that I was transgender, he changed my schedule. And we had already come to an understanding that the schedule that I was working, I could not alter from that. And he says, well, if you can't come in, then I'm sorry. We're going to have to let you go.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Michelle, as I understand it, you were telling one of our producers that you've had people, like, physically fondle you when they found out that you're a transgender.

Ms. ENFIELD: Yes.

MARTIN: What is that about?

Ms. ENFIELD: When people find out that I'm transgender, they sort of objectify me. And all of a sudden, I'm not a human being anymore. I'm just this object. I remember when I was telling your producer that a manager found out that I was transgender, and he reached out and he grabbed my breast. He told me, you don't have to play. I know what you are. I was mortified. I just - confused. I think a lot has to do with the sexualization that comes from the media.

MARTIN: Why is this a media thing, per se? I'm not even sure people even think about it that much. Do they?

Ms. ENFIELD: I would say, because a lot of transgenders that are portrayed in media are hookers, cocaine addicts, prostitutes, and they're not necessarily portrayed as human being with feelings. They're just sexual objects.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're talking about a first-of-its-kind survey of transgender people that is just out. The survey was written by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. And our guests are Jaime Grant, one of the lead authors of that survey. And also with us, Michelle Enfield. She's a transgender woman who's now who was born a biological male, and she's telling us about her experiences.

So Jaime, tell me, what is your prospective on this? And why some of this behavior?

Dr. GRANT: Our culture is created around rigid ideas about gender. Men are supposed to be X. Females are supposed to be Y. And anybody who walks outside of those boundaries is in trouble in this culture. And I think transpeople, they don't conform to those ideas.

When you said people feel - feeling like people are at risk for violence when they're - other people are misled about transgender identity, our study shows that people who are the most out - which in lesbian, gay, bisexual studies, when you're out, there's supposed to be a sort of protective effect. You're supposed to be a more empowered person. Your health care gets better. Your mental health gets better. People treat you better. In our study, transgender people who are out were actually treated worse. So the idea that, you know, all this violence and harassment is because people are getting tricked and misled by transgender people is a media fiction.

MARTIN: Well, let me just point out one data point from the survey. You said that the survey reports that participants were four to five times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty.

Dr. GRANT: That's right.

MARTIN: The annual household income is less than $10,000, regardless...

Dr. GRANT: Right.

MARTIN: ...of education level.

Dr. GRANT: Eighty-five percent of participants in our study have had some college education. Only 57 percent of the entire general population has had some college education, and yet they're living in extreme poverty, four times the rate of the general population. That is just such an extreme scale.

What it tells you is our people are resilient enough to get through the abuse by peers and teachers in elementary school through, you know, higher education, go back to school, finish their degrees, but 90 percent of them in the workplace report harassment, violence, assault, the whole gamut.

MARTIN: But what is it that you think people are reacting to?

Dr. GRANT: People are reacting to gender.

MARTIN: Yeah, what are they reacting to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But do you really think that's unique to this culture? I guess that's the part that I'm sort of pushing back on. I mean, there are countries in which there are jobs that you can't do unless you're a certain gender.

Dr. GRANT: Right.

MARTIN: There is no legal protection against discrimination based on gender...

Dr. GRANT: Sure.

MARTIN: ...and I'm just wondering what is it - or is it something, you know, organic that people are reacting to?

Dr. GRANT: I absolutely don't think it's organic anymore than - I mean, it used to be organic to think women should never be in the public sphere. That's the kind of organic land we're in. We're in the land where it's a power dynamic that has to do with very limited ideas about gender. And I think that this community, in the past 20 years, has sort of come out of the shadows. What we're seeing now is a community defining itself and trying to advocate for itself. When we look at all these different areas of life, there's such extreme social and economic marginalization, that people are not even treated like human beings.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that before we let you two go. And I'd like to ask each of you to reflect on what you would like to happen as a result of people being acquainted with the kind of information that is in this survey.

Dr. GRANT: Mm-hmm. Right. Well, we...

MARTIN: Michelle, do you want to go first? And then Jaime, I'll ask you to conclude.

Ms. ENFIELD: Sure. I would like people to take this survey into their hearts and their minds and have a broader perspective, an open mind as to what transgenders have to go through. And I know that everybody has discriminations at some point in their lives, and I just want people to understand that as transgendered individuals, as a transgender community, we are not trying to put out there that we are going to change medically to fit into this. But we are just human beings, and we're trying to make ourselves happy, just like everyone else is.

MARTIN: Jaime, what about you? What would you want people to draw and, you know, another thing, Jaime, I wanted to ask you this - and it's a hard question to ask, because you see this as a human rights issue. But I'm just saying that there are those who would feel that it is not wrong to ask people to adhere to certain gender norms.

Dr. GRANT: Right.

MARTIN: So I'm wondering if you could speak to people who just believe for whatever reason: religiously, philosophically, instinctually.

Dr. GRANT: Right. I guess I believe in everyone's right to self-determination. I think it's great for you to have that feeling about yourself and your family and whoever your sphere is, but I don't think it's all right for you to decide what my appropriate gender expression is, or for me to decide for you. And that, for me, at bottom, is a human rights issue.

You know, I hope that this study causes people, as Michelle says, to look deeply inside themselves and look at the ways they're making a living hell for transpeople and their communities, and whether we're okay with that.

MARTIN: Jaime Grant is one of the lead authors of a new national survey about the lives of transgender people. It's called Injustice at Every Turn. It was released earlier this month by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Jaime was joining us from Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Michelle Enfield was also with us. She identifies as a transgender woman. She's now pursuing a humanities degree at Los Angeles Community College. She's working for the AIDS Project Los Angeles, and she was with us from Los Angeles.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ENFIELD: Thanks.

Dr. GRANT: Thank you very much.

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