The Only Comprehensive Study on Transgender People Is Not Coming Out as Planned

The U.S. Trans Survey offers some of the only data on trans life in America, but a nonprofit’s shortfalls and the pandemic threaten its future.

This story originally appeared on The 19th.

The Only Comprehensive Study Survey on Transgender People Is Not Coming Out as Planned
Transgender healthcare rally by the White House in October 2018. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

For the past five years, if you needed a statistic on transgender people, you likely got it from the U.S. Transgender Survey

The reports, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) have long been held up as the only comprehensive studies of transgender life in the United States. Since it was first released in 2013, experts say that the survey has informed nearly every major U.S. policy impacting transgender life. 

“The impact that those have had on our ability to do advocacy cannot be overstated,” said Danni Askini, a longtime transgender advocate and former advisory board member of the study. “Literally the reason why we have trans health insurance inclusion is because of that data.”

But a string of organizational falters and the pandemic have threatened the future of the survey. NCTE announced that the U.S. Trans Survey, originally scheduled for 2020, will be delayed by at least a year. 

“We had originally planned to conduct the [U.S. Trans Survey] this summer and fall,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director for NCTE, in a statement to The 19th. The pandemic “forced us to delay the survey until 2021.”

Even before the pandemic, LGBTQ+ community leaders raised serious questions about NCTE’s ability to produce the study this year. In November 2019, the bulk of NCTE’s staff took a 10-week buyout after alleging that the group’s leaders had engaged in racist employment practices and union-busting. 

Past surveys have been conducted in 2011 and 2015. Before the survey, data on trans people was largely limited to small and regional studies. So community organizers like Askini hit dead ends in seeking funding for projects or support from legislators for policy changes. The U.S. Trans Survey has supplanted data where the federal government has collected almost none. 

“Nobody was going to do that,” said Askini. “No private institution, no university project, and certainly no federal agency was going to go to the extent to even bother looking at that.”

Congress has referred to the survey extensively. For reporters, it is often the only source of data on the transgender unemployment rate, incarceration, access to health care, racial disparities, aging, incidence of discrimination and violence, homelessness and so many other details about what it means to to be trans in the U.S.

“For too long, transgender and non-binary people have been left out of major data collection efforts by both public and private researchers,” said Jay Brown, senior vice president of  programs, research and training at the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. “The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey is a crucial tool in this regard, and has often been the most reliable resource for data and information about trans and non-binary people’s experiences and needs in the U.S.” 

NCTE employed top-tier researchers and widely-respected community organizers to complete the report.

“Essentially, we went for like, ‘It needs to be big enough to be indisputable, so that it’s not a small sample size that people can just dismiss,’” said Askini. 

The 2011 survey, a massive undertaking, did not go exactly according to plan. Thousands more completed the survey than anticipated, and it took two years to release. By 2015, the survey was expected to come out every five years. 

To reach as many people as possible, the 2015 survey was offered in Spanish and English, and in some cities, NCTE hired translators to help participants take it in Mandarin and Vietnamese. Although the bulk of participants took the survey online, researchers passed out paper copies in homeless shelters, where people might not have internet access. (The survey found that 30 percent of trans people had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.)

Austin Johnson, the Research Director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, says that though most LGBTQ+ data focuses on the coasts and cities, the U.S. Trans Survey provides some of the only data that exists on trans life in the South and the middle of the country. 

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“We have kind of anecdotal evidence,” Johnson said. “We know the folks we serve or who we’re in community with, but these large projects really give us a lot of information in terms of who needs what and how much they need.”

That data is critical, he said, as organizations figure out where to send aid during the coronavirus pandemic. 

When The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was circulating a memo that would legally define trans people out of existence in October 2018, NCTE launched the viral #WontBeErased campaign to show the resilience of transgender people. But now, its capacity to battle anti-trans policies from the Trump administration has been substantially reduced. 

NCTE, which boasted a staff of 23 people at its height last year, reports three employees in leadership on its website currently. Its capacity to battle the onslaught of anti-trans policies pouring from the Trump administration has been substantially reduced. 

Heng-Lehtinen said the organization is actively hiring for three positions. He added that the organization is working to stem the wave of anti-trans violence plaguing communities of color. Meanwhile, the organization continues to be dogged by accusations of racism by former staffers. 

Another source familiar with the project said that as early as summer 2019 a lack of dedicated staff on the project had foreclosed the possibility of an on-time completion of the survey. 

“They delayed it because of the pandemic — but all the data was supposed to be collected in fall of 2019,” said a source familiar with the planning of the survey.

Johnson worries that a delay in completing the new survey will have real consequences.

“I think about how important it is for us to know about what’s going on in our communities so that for those of us who are engaged in movement-making or community organizing, can feel empowered to make a change and make a difference,” he said. “There is such a lack of data already.” 

Askini, who has been critical of current leadership, says a delay in the survey might not forecast doom for the project. 

“I think it will be better to have newer data if we get a new [presidential] administration,” Askini said. Askini thinks fresh data could be crucial to drafting a trans policy agenda to advocate for in a potential Biden administration.

 “But I don’t know that NCTE has the goodwill of the community and especially trans communities of color given what was leveled against the organization … I just don’t think that they’re going to be able to pull it off.” 


Kate Sosin is the 19th's LGBTQ+ reporter, focusing on transgender rights, incarceration, politics and public policy. Kate has conducted deep-dive investigations into transgender prison abuse and homicides for NBC News. They previously worked at Logo TV, INTO and Windy City Times.