My life as a data point

I came across this quote in the abstract of a conference presentation by Sel J. Hwahng (on Page 7 of this PDF):

It is well known among public health researchers that in the U.S. the majority of male-to-female transgender (transfeminine) people are low-income people of color, while the majority of female-to-male transgender people (specifically those that identify as transmen, FTM, or genderqueer) are white and economically/educationally privileged.

I was floored by this statement, since I’ve been very adamant about the fact that we just don’t know what the majority of anything trans is, and about the need for caution when making any kind of statement involving proportions. The statement goes against my own perceptions, but I deliberately avoid reading too much into my own perceptions, because I know how much I don’t know. If this non-fact is “well known among public health researchers,” then my opinion of public health researchers just dropped quite a bit.

I was further intrigued to discover that I’m in those numbers. Me personally, I’ve been counted! Several years ago I volunteered for a multi-year study of male to female transgender people in the greater New York area. Every few months I’d go in, answer a bunch of questions, and get a blood test and a few bucks for my trouble. I didn’t do it for the money, which was well below my hourly rate for computer work. I was contributing my data, in part to provide a counterpoint to the idea that all transfeminine people are low-income people of color. I guess it only goes so far.

It turns out that Sel Hwahng was one of the researchers. I might have talked to him once or twice, but I mostly dealt with Mona Rae Mason and Monica Macri. And yes, non-Hispanic white people counted for only 27% of study participants and people making more than $30,000 a year were only 26%, so us well-off white people are certainly a minority of the study participants. No, you can’t generalize from that, but then again I didn’t really talk sampling with anybody while I was there.

Reading that abstract got me looking up the results that have come out of the study. Sel Hwahng used some of the qualitative data in this report from 2007, showing how the MTF trans population in New York is segregated into distinct communities based on ethnicity: black/latin, asian and white. It’s got a lot of interesting existential observations, but I could do without the implication that all of us “middle-class White cross-dressers” are just waiting to break up with our wives to transition. Some of us plan to die as men.

In 2009 the whole group published a report using the quantitative data to argue that life for transgender people is more complicated than Ray Blanchard’s simplistic “homosexual” and “autogynephilic” dichotomy. They then got into a thing with Anne Lawrence about it. What I find most interesting is that among the study participants were 221 people who reported that at some time in our lives, wearing feminine attire was “sexually arousing,” including 90 who reported not being attracted to non-transgender females, and 58 who reported not being attracted to non-transgender males. One of those 58 is me.

In 2011 the group published another report based on questions about verbal and physical abuse, and whether such abuse was related to gender identity or presentation. They showed that MTF transpeople who experience that kind of abuse tend to be more depressed, and also to have more unprotected anal sex, and to be at greater risk for HIV infection. I’m glad to say that I didn’t have any abuse, depression or unprotected anal sex to report, and I didn’t test positive for HIV. I’m sad to read that there were 107 people who came in and told Monica or Mona that they’d been verbally or physically abused, 145 who were depressed, and 43 who had unprotected anal sex with a casual partner or a john. The point of the article is that one way to overcome AIDS is to stick up for transpeople, and of course that’s a message I support.

The 2007 report makes unsupported leaps even without explicit quantitative statements, but in the 2009 and 2011 reports, Larry Nuttbrock was very careful to include disclaimers about the limits to generalizing the results. I’m glad he did, and I think his conclusions were mostly justified. Overall, I’m satisfied with the reports that have come out of this study. It was an interesting experience to answer all those questions. I wonder what they’ll do next.