THE BLOG
06/18/2013 02:14 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Canary in the Coal Mine

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Last week was a roller coaster of emotions related to transgender issues for me. First, the announcement that the Social Security Administration will be changing the rules for altering your gender marker in their records is a giant administrative step forward. It does leave some giant questions about how the IRS will handle the influx of same-sex marriages in states without marriage equality, but it does not diminish the enormity of this advance.

The other big news was the release of the Pew study on LGBT people. It contained a ton of data, which people are still parsing through. However, when I read it from the perspective of a transgender person, I focused on things that the rest of the media hasn't seemed to pick up on.

The study mostly ignored trans people, because it couldn't get a significant sample size. Once again, data on transgender people was not captured, and as a result, trans activists are working in a data-poor environment. We can't make good decisions in the absence of information. Specifically, we need to determine how to deal with the rest of the data in this survey, which paints an extremely negative picture of the battlespace as it stands for transgender people.

First, it showed that LGB people are somewhat better educated than the public at large but earn somewhat less. However, a previous NCTE study showed that the gap was even worse for the trans community. Trans people are, on average, a lot more educated but earn a lot less. Equal employment opportunity protections are the most important issue to LGBT people, ahead of even marriage. This should serve as a hint to the administration and Congress as to what's really important to the community.

However, for transgender people, getting employment protections passed is proving maddeningly difficult, even in some Democrat-friendly states like New York. Four states have enacted marriage equality without providing workplace protections for transgender workers. While Delaware is on the verge of passing gender identity-based protections, states like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Idaho are going in the opposite direction, with state governments trying to nullify local ordinances.

This inability to gain protections for gender identity has a lot to do with public perceptions of transgender people. LGBT people feel that there is some to a lot of acceptance of bisexual women (78 percent), lesbians (85 percent), gay men (71 percent), and bisexual men (52 percent). Conversely 80 percent of LGB people said there is little to no acceptance of transgender people, and only 18 percent felt that there is some to a lot of acceptance. This gap should be a wakeup call in itself.

What makes it worse is that none of the mechanisms for changing public perception for LGB people are available for transgender people. LGBT people see knowing someone who is LGBT as the most important factor in increasing acceptance (70 percent), followed closely by LGBT celebrities (67 percent) and support for LGBT people by non-LGBT people (66 percent).

This is bad news for the trans community. Very few Americans know an openly trans person. We're too few in number, and many choose the stealth option. The trans community doesn't have an Ellen or a George Takei. The closest the trans community comes to support from non-LGBT folks is Vice President Joe Biden's off-the-cuff remark last year, and his son's endorsement of the non-discrimination bill in Delaware. In short, the transgender community lacks basically all the things necessary to win public perception over.

Another problem is that many transgender people have felt that support for the trans community by LGB people has been lukewarm. The Pew study seems to bear this perception out. Fifty-five percent of LGB respondents said that they have little to nothing in common with transgender people in terms of issues and concerns. This is reflected in the fact that of the policy issues the researchers asked about, health coverage for transgender people ranked last as a priority, with only 29-percent support.

Combined with the bigger picture, the Pew study is deeply troubling. We have almost no cultural acceptance. We lack all the traditional methods for changing this for the better. The risk of being "left behind" is strong, given the LGB's community's feeling that we have almost nothing in common. Even if large LGBT organizations have the will to fight for transgender people, they may not have the financial ability to continue after they win on marriage. While most LGB people perceive the situation in the U.S. to be improving, the transgender community is standing on the edge of a cliff.

Religiously motivated right-wing politicians and pundits are figuring out that the trans community makes a great, low-risk target for the worst of their vitriol. While Rachel Maddow may wonder what conservatives will do when it is socially unacceptable to hate gay people, the numbers say that trans people are still fair game. Just ask Todd Starnes and Fox News. The thought of the trans community trying to go it alone against the collective might of the American Family Association, the Liberty Counsel, the Family Research Council, and the Fox News media empire should scare anyone with a sense of history.

If I were still doing forecasting for CENTCOM, AFRICOM, and USAid, and you handed me this data, I would be calling for an emergency meeting with my supervisors to warn them of an impending humanitarian crisis. Tiny, defenseless group hated and reviled by much larger group of religious extremists? Check. Tiny group receiving intermittent protection from much stronger allies who may lose a lot of their funding in the next decade? Check. Econometric factors pointing toward instability? Check. Cultural instability? Check. The only thing missing is a national government that is friendly or neutral toward the religious extremists.

What gains we have made are reversible. There is the potential for things to "go sideways" for the transgender community in a hurry. This study is just the canary in the coal mine.

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