It would seem that trans people have never had it so good. Recognition of trans identities legally and socially may well be at their best ever, around the world, and projects like Transparent and Orange is the New Black have increased empathy with and awareness of trans people. Yet a look at the largest report ever done of the transgender community shows that things for this community still remain dire on the ground.
The 2015 US Transgender Report undertaken by the National Transgender Center for Transgender Equality in the US surveyed over 29,000 trans people—men, women and non-binary people. What they found is that transgender people are still living in crisis in numerous ways. At the heart of the community’s problems is chronic unemployment and under-employment, with 15% of trans people surveyed currently unemployed, three times as many as the overall rate in the US. This was intensified for people of colour, who reported rates of up to 35% unemployment for trans Middle Eastern people. Moreover, nearly one third were living in poverty, double the overall US rate. A quarter report being denied work as a result of their gender identity, while one in six had lost a job for being trans.
These findings suggest that there is chronic prejudice against trans people in the workplace, that trans people are excluded in endemic numbers from employment—a fact that has numerous other consequences for transgender life in the US. A staggering third of transgender people have been homeless at one point or another in their lives, with 12% reporting homelessness in the past year. Clearly exclusion from reliable employment is a major contributing factor to this homelessness, as well as a lack of social (especially familial) ties to compensate for poverty.
As a result of this marginalisation, transgender people inevitably begin to participate in the underground economy, either dealing drugs or doing sex work. 9% of all trans people have sold drugs or done sex work in the last year, a concerning statistic which shows the ways in which mere survival for the transgender community is a struggle. It’s not hard to see why many would turn to drugs and sex work to avoid homelessness, nor is it a sign of individual immorality—it is the systematic removal of opportunities to flourish using legal means.
Unsurprisingly, this has led to an increased interaction with police and the prison system, with respondents reporting high levels of harassment from police. Many trans people feeling targeted by police specifically because of their transness. Respondents, especially women of colour, report being assumed to be a sex worker, and abuse, misgendering and violence from police. Trans people are still being jailed in the wrong sex jails, with a result that many report violence from guards and fellow prisoners.
Indeed, many of the institutions that are supposed to protect transgender people fail miserably. 7 out of 10 people report being harassed, misgendered and subjected to violence in homeless shelters, with many trans people avoiding shelters as a result.
What is obvious from all these statistics is that there is a cycle of unemployment, homelessness, survival sex work and imprisonment that keeps the transgender community trapped in poverty. At every turn, transgender people are targeted for discrimination, exclusion and violence. Though there has been remarkable progress in some ways, both legal and in terms of popular culture representation, the basic facts of transgender life remain largely the same. Transgender people report prejudice at endemic levels at every institution they encounter. This occurs both at the level of individual prejudice and transphobic policy, where transgender people who cannot afford the surgery required for document change in most states are systematically misgendered, are placed in the wrong sex accommodations to horrific effect.
Unfortunately for the American transgender community, this seems likely to only increase during a Trump presidency. Mara Kiesling, from the National Center for Transgender Equality, has noted that while Trump’s personal positions on LGBT rights themselves are unclear, "virtually every — if not every — appointment he has announced so far has been an extremely anti-LGBT person.” In the wake of the North Carolina bathroom bill, Trump’s Republican party has been looking towards passing more anti-transgender legislation. While it is doubtful that Trump himself is particularly rabidly transphobic—at one point in his campaign he argued for transgender people’s right to use their chosen bathroom—he is, if nothing else, a political opportunist who would undoubtedly sacrifice trans people to his ambition without a second thought. At a symbolic level, moreover, Trump’s election signals to all kinds of groups that the age of “political correctness”—that is to say the drive towards equal rights for minorities—may well be over for now. If the NCTE report showed that things are bad in the transgender community in the US right now, it is a sobering fact that they may well be getting worse very, very soon.