Am I The Only One? Online Polling, Advocacy, and The Least of Us

What NCTE Doesn’t Say
September 6, 2008
The Sound of Silence: The HRC National Dinner Protest
September 25, 2008

Am I The Only One? Online Polling, Advocacy, and The Least of Us

Recently the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) announced their effort to collect data on  “discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment, public accommodation, health care, education, family life and criminal justice.”

Mara Keisling said of this effort:

“This is an absolutely critical national effort. We urge all transgender and gender non-conforming people to take the survey to help guide us in making better laws and policies that will improve the quality of life for all transgender people. We need everyone’s voice in this, everyone’s participation.”

One of the glaring holes in this effort is that it comes in the form of an online survey.  Looking at this Transgender Day of Remembrance site, I wonder how many of these people had internet access? How many of these people were connected into online transgender networks?

The recent transgender hearings in Congress have been called historic by some, and in many ways they are. But many of the same questions of privilege and race remain. There’s an amazing disconnect that the hearings were held in a city that has had one of the highest transgender muder rates of African Americans (and a population that is 56% African American), and some of the most desperate conditions for transgender African Americans. Yet the people that spoke before Congress were people of privilege.  Diane Schroer (a retired Colonel) , Rep. Tammy Baldwin (a lesbian US Representative); Rep. Barney Frank (a gay US Representative); William H. Hendrix III (a PHD from Dow Chemical),  Sabrina Marcus Taraboletti (a former NASA engineer),  Shannon Minter (a lawyer),  Rep. Robert Andrews (a US Representative), are all white people that have a certain amount of racial and economic privilege. The only person of color on the panel was Diego Sanchez. Sanchez is the Director of Public Relations & External Affairs, AIDS Action Committee. He’s worked for Starwood Hotels, ITT Sheraton, Coca-Cola, Holiday Inn, Burson-Marsteller/NY and Ketchum/Atlanta. Sanchez is a Rhodes Scholar candidate and a UMass/Boston Emerging Leaders Senior Fellow and holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Georgia with a major in Public Relations. While he is a person of color, he hardly represents the average transgender person of color. He’s a person of economic priveldge. But it’s Taraboletti’s testimony that sticks out in my mind, especially when she said:

Personally I have lost my wife, most of my assets, and my home in divorce. I have been abandoned by half of my family and friends. At the same time, I had to find the $70-90,000 of funding and endure the extreme pain of electrolysis, and the various other surgeries required to complete the transition from male to female.

Contrast that to the Washington Transgender Needs Assesment Survey (which was NOT on online survey) done in 2000:

Participants range in age from 13 to 61, with nearly 80% 36 years and under. Seventy-five percent report being born anatomically male, 24% female and 1% intersexed. Over 94% are of color, with nearly 70% African-American and 22% Latino/a. Eighty-four percent are U.S. citizens, and 20% have immigrated to the U.S., mostly from Latin American countries. The majority of the participants self-report their sexual orientation as Gay (65%), their gender identity as Transgender (69%) and their relationship status as single (69%).

Forty percent have not finished high school, and only 58% are employed in paid positions. Twenty-nine percent report no source of income, and another 31% report annual incomes under $10,000. Fifteen percent report losing a job due to discrimination from being transgendered. Forty-three percent of the participants have been a victim of violence or crime, with 75% attributing a motive of either transphobia or homophobia to it.

Neither the Congressional hearings or this online survey even begin to cut into the abject poverty and discrimination that most transgender people experience. If the statistics are to be believed, the number of transgender people that live at or below the poverty level is fairly substantial. Where is the outreach to those of us that have the least? Those of us that are suffering the worst from discrimination in employment, housing, and medical care? Where are people that Earline Budd and the folks over at the Tyra Hunter’s Drop-In Center serve?

If you are online and you give money to these organizations, odds are you probably aren’t suffering the worst discrimination. This survey seems more like an effort to poll donors of the sponsoring organizations, than a picture of the state of transgender people in the United States.

14 Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    My friend Michael Hinson (the E.D. of The Colours Org in Philly is bringing the survey to the attention of transfolks who use their services & making it possible for them to participate by using their computers. I hope to get a few other orgs to join in and assist trans folks who use their service, but don’t have computers as well. The trans health clinic would be ideal.

    Maybe others can try and make these connections near them.

  2. Kara Harkins says:

    Now I know I was not the only one who had the same exact reaction when hearing about that survey. For a real survey (like the study Jessy did for the Washington Needs Assessment) you do not self-select by methods that would favor a subgroup who will have statistically less things to report than the marginalized subgroup you want to study.

  3. Marti Abernathey says:

    @ Kathy:

    I think you’re missing the point. Had it been targeting the people that are in need the most, it never would have been an online poll. I didn’t even get into the poll questions themselves, which aren’t put together very well. Had this been a serious survey, it would have been rolled out at places like Transgender Health Empowerment, The Colours, The Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition, or Lyon-Martin Health Services. These would have been places to start, not places that to get to if someone taking the survey happens to think about it.

  4. Marti Abernathey says:

    @ Kara Harkins:

    Exactly my point. But I think this isn’t just a bad idea, it’s a consistent pattern. DC is full of transgender women of color. But did they have Earline Budd testify? Hell, anyone from Transgender Health Empowerment would have been able to tell stories 50 times worse than any told by anyone sitting at that table.

  5. Jolie` says:

    I think its wonderful that thoughtful people take the time to debate on these issues, It is edifying and important to inform knowledgeable truths about our trans population. I do take issue with limiting the debate to conform with a perceived stereotype that trans persons are poor, unemployed, victims without access to computers and online resources who only seek their services through the non profit social services agencies that serve the homeless, mentally ill and desperate. The problem is that there have been dozens of surveys of trans populations that indeed targeted the the dispossessed that attend events at social service agencies. Earnest academicians who want to study trans populations have historical sought data directly through social service agencies neglecting completely those of us who run our own businesses, manage agencies, work on political campaigns and generally thrive in a harsh and unforgiving world. We run the risk of creating an impression that these marginalized people represent who we all are. There is no question that the marginalized and dispossessed are being murdered and attacked at rates exponentially higher than the general cis-population. There is no doubt that their plight is a epidemic demanding effective and immediate rescue. The problem I am trying to describe is that researchers then extrapolate from the data collected through drop in clinics and social action centers and generalize that to our population as a whole. We are much more than that. I am a community educator and I manage a small social services anti oppression effort. I also run an employment program that serves to divert a young population of transgender sex workers from the central city area. In my efforts I seek support from the scores of my trans peers professionally educated and gainfully employed. I guess my real point is not to throw stones at this study just because it has a few flaws but lets get out there and create more and more studies that seek to understand and describe the entire picture of trans populations. If it were to become profitable to study and service the trans community than more researchers, doctors, lawyers counselors and the like would seek to do this work. Lets have more studies – good studies, bad studies, green studies and even republican studies. Lets participate in them all and create a complex, subtle tableau of who we really are.

  6. Marti Abernathey says:

    @ Jolie`:

    I do take issue with limiting the debate to conform with a perceived stereotype that trans persons are poor, unemployed, victims without access to computers and online resources who only seek their services through the non profit social services agencies that serve the homeless, mentally ill and desperate.

    A good majority of transgender people are poor. And frankly, associating being poor with being mentally ill is pretty elitist and rather derogatory.

    Earnest academicians who want to study trans populations have historical sought data directly through social service agencies neglecting completely those of us who run our own businesses, manage agencies, work on political campaigns and generally thrive in a harsh and unforgiving world.

    Um, so people that can support themselves and aren’t discriminated against are the ones that need surveyed? Wow. Just wow. Btw, this is a survey, not a scientific study. And NCTE calls it “a comprehensive national survey to collect data on discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment, public accommodation, health care, education, family life and criminal justice,” not just a survey of the elite white folks.

  7. Kara Harkins says:

    @Jolie
    Unfortunately you are missing the point. If this is supposed to be a survey of discrimination, why not look at where you have the best chance of finding that? Should we just survey the people who are well-off comparably and announce ‘all is well’ while ignoring people who are desperately in need of help?

    Simillarly, you can look at the fact that it is supposed to be a survey of *all* transpeople. The methods involved only capture data from the well-off and connected. We are the minority, and it is hardly indicative of the population. Any extrapolation based on the results of this are inherently flawed.

    It is for those reasons why I declined to participate in this. I would only skew the results in the ‘all is well’ direction and add legitimacy (by force of numbers) to it. Since assumedly this will be used in policy decisions, no way did I want to risk being partially responsible for contributing to those in need not getting all the help possible.

  8. BEAR A-M Rodgers says:

    Marti is right on about the selective survey techniques. Not everyone has internet access, poor or well off, and many of those with access never heard of the survey. Out here we cannot get internet in many areas, including no cellular coverage. Lots of Trans people do not frequent the T websites and chat groups that advertised the surveys I have seen, and no one from any of those chat groups were asked to testify. Right now there is a survey for Parents of Trans people that is barely getting advertised but the researchers sent me files to distribute hardcopies for folks to handwrite their responses and they would be manually entered into system by me or the researchers. Few months ago a similar survey targeting only current Parents of Trans children, it was only advertised via Adult chatgroups and the final tally was 12 responses (that was odd too since Tennessee was not on the demographics list even though my laptop was used by one mother).

    Remember, Barney Frank and HRC are the ones who created the witness list. Diego, the token ‘minority’ and FTM, works for HIV/AIDS programs heavily funded by HRC since they help mostly white gay men in that locality. Great he was there at all, but still not representative of the average FTM (or any Trans person) in America. I am sure this will get me hate mail, but I am an out post-transition Federal officer who does volunteer advocacy and support for Trans people in rural east TN and bordering states, yet Barney and HRC said I would not be a convincing witness when I volunteered and neither would the people I serve.

    All in all, Trans are poor, middle class, sometimes rich, not on the internet for various reasons or ‘net junkies, some are mentally ill while many are not, and ALL of them/us should be represented in a tangible way. Geez, just the idea of coming up with $70k for electrolysis makes a FTM’s head spin if he cannot scrape up $6k for a hysto, or $8 for chest reconstruction (not going to start on the bottom surgery issue) especially when being assigned female at birth meant “doing your womanly duty” by tending a family instead of getting a degree and good jobs. I am a lucky one with insurance and a job, yet this week I am barely eating because I spent my grocery money on buying HRT supplies for my T sisters & brothers without insurance so ended up shorting myself this month. I do not remember first-person stories like that, from either direction, being put into the Congressional record.
    Yep, when the word first went out about this hearing I said the ‘little’ Trans people would be shafted again. Sad to be right, huh Marti.

  9. Kathy says:

    “I think you’re missing the point.”

    I thought I was agreeing with the point & trying to find some solutions to the very real problems noted. It certainly would have been better if these difficulties were anticipated in the design – that doesn’t mean efforts can’t be made to improve the diversity of respondants and address the technology access issues.

    It wouldn’t take a great deal of work either – I got a few agencies on board in my town merely by sending an email and asking they do outreach on this – some I didn’t have to ask – they jumped in on their own.

  10. something2be says:

    I completely agree that by being an online survey, it’s probably missing the people who need it most– the poorest people who are the most likely to face discrimination. However, not everyone who has internet access and is on the NCTE e-mail list is middle-class. My partner lives right at the poverty line, and she found out about the survey. While the poorest of the poor are unlikely to have internet access, there are many trans people who are also poor by any reasonable measure who do (and even by unreasonable ones, like government poverty guidelines, which omit many people who live in poverty). Many of these people live in smaller cities which do not have health agencies that specialize in working with trans people in poverty.

    I think that rather than relying solely on the internet, NCTE should have tried to get the word out by as many means possible– including heavily targeting community organizations who work directly with trans people. However, I don’t think informing people about the survey through online mailing lists *as an option* is necessarily a bad thing, as long as that isn’t the way they try to reach people.

  11. Marti Abernathey says:

    @ something2be:

    For sure, I wasn’t trying to paint everyone with the same brush, but I do know a lot of folks that wouldn’t be online and if they were most certainly wouldn’t be running in transadvocacy circles… and they are the ones that need represented the most.

    And that’s just it… the people that are doing that footwork are people like Kathy, and not the creators of the poll. I personally think shows were their focus is at.

  12. Sarasnavel says:

    Two observations: The first is that if you are trying to influence people (such as, say, members of Congress), it works best to present people with whom they might possibly be able to identify. As a practical matter, for the hearings that would leave out anyone not on multiple corporate Boards of Directors, but the pickings there are a little slim, so they did the best they could. Remember, those hearings were more about image than anything else. I’m guessing that when Congresspeople actually do donate to non-profits, it’s to large, well known ones that will sell good in the Heartland.

    Second, the observation that the data from the online poll might be useful for solicitation demographics I think was dead on.

    Funny thing is, it wouldn’t take much to turn the online survey into a document that could be printed and mailed out to the various organizations that provide services to the trans people that are most discriminated against. The fact that that is not being done speaks louder than anything else.

  13. Kara Harkins says:

    It looks like NCTE does have a link to the pdf now. However their doing so while not making the effort to promote a text version offline (or even telling online people about it), seems to be a thin veil that putting it there is more a CYA play than a real effort to disseminate it.

  14. Good post. It’s actually kinda funny. Once upon a time we did an online survey (NTAC) just to have the beginnings of demographic info on the trans community (with it easily printed, with the plan that we’d take to the girls on the streets for completion as well).

    One of the critics of the “online” survey for its “limited” pool of potential respondents … Mara Keisling. A year or so later, she and HRC formed a relationship and collaborated on an HRC-funded study that was more “scientific” and gauged response to trans inclusion compared to G&L. To me, it was also pretty thin on the socioeconomic demographics that were needed (I’m not sure that I mentioned that to her) … not to mention HRC didn’t do as promised and make public or distribute the compiled, completed findings.

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