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Mara Keisling

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Injustice at Every Turn

Posted: 02/04/11 05:01 PM ET

Until now, we haven't really known just how bad it is or how strong we are.

As we release the findings from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the levels of discrimination documented are shocking for two reasons -- first, they so clearly chronicle the incredible devastation that occurs in the lives of people who are discriminated against. But second, they also shows the incredible resiliency of people so marginalized, but so determined. I wonder if Americans still realize that this kind of prejudice continues to flourish in our country. And that yet another group of people stands strong in the face of it, waiting for recognition.

Transgender people are confronted at every turn with discrimination -- in school, at work, on the streets, in the doctor's office, in the line for public assistance, in the restroom, in the boardroom, and many more places. Even in their own homes. It is exhausting, it is frightening, and it is, for far too many people, almost continuous.

When we analyze the data in this survey, we can see very concretely the ways in which those who have experienced that discrimination fare far worse than those who have not. Those who are bullied and harassed in school, especially those whose teachers are the perpetrators of violence, have a much higher rate (76%) of attempting suicide. Those who lose their jobs because of bias are much more likely (70%) to misuse drugs or alcohol to help cope with their experiences. I could give example after example. It seems somehow grossly inappropriate that we even need to prove that discrimination is bad for people -- devastatingly bad -- but if we need to do so, surely the proof is here.

What this survey also tells us is that prejudice against people because of their race, their levels of income, their gender identity and their sexual orientation is still especially rampant, and that these prejudices often intersect with one another. Transgender people of color, especially African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and those of mixed racial identity, are subject to staggering rates of eviction (as high was 37%), job loss (as high as 36%), HIV infection rates (as high as 25%), harassment and denial of equal services. But no group in our sample has it easy.

We see that employers, landlords, doctors, government officials, and other important figures act out their personal prejudices or institutional biases in ways that damage the lives of other people, and they do so largely with impunity and perhaps even with a sense of their own righteousness. This threatens the freedom and well-being of all of us.

LGBT people should take particular note. The discrimination outlined here is based on gender identity and expression -- on the clothes people wear, their mannerisms, the degree to which they are perceived as fitting into a masculine or feminine stereotype -- and sexual orientation is often judged on those gendered boxes as well. Lesbians are fired for being too "mannish" and gay men -- particularly those who are more effeminate -- face violence because they aren't "real men." This survey just reminds us all that our enemy -- the firings, the violence, the harassment -- has not been vanquished for any of us, despite the gains we've made in many areas.

But here's what matters most to me personally in this data -- the ways in which transgender people keep going in the midst of all of it. Almost a quarter of the people in our survey had experienced three or more major acts of discrimination, things that would reasonably knock any of us down and impact our lives, like getting fired because of who they are, being denied custody and contact with their children, or becoming homeless. But transgender people keep going; they look for work, they look for a place to live, they go back to school to better their chances at another job, they find love, they reconcile with their children. I am awed by the resiliency of transgender people that we see here.

This survey is at its core the story of 6,450 individual people in our survey sample doing the best they can in the face of often unrelenting prejudice from others. Those individual people, those human beings, are striving to be true to themselves and build a life for themselves and for their families. Their honesty and strength should be rewarded by our very best efforts to change the story so that, every time we ask these questions in years to come, the devastation of discrimination will yield further, as a new story rises to take its place -- a story of freedom, of honesty, of love, and of the right to simply be who you are.