You call those statistics? What reality are you living in?

February 28, 2009

So, what’s one of the first things out of people’s mouth’s about trans people? We’re so rare, no one’s ever met us before, etc. The psychiatric community has, for the most part, invested heavily in this idea that we’re incredibly rare.

To wit, the most recent “official” statistics to come out about prevalence of transsexual folks were: 1/11,900 [folks assigned male at birth] and 1/30,400 [folks assigned female at birth]. Lynn Conway critiques the study and not only finds it to be off by a factor of 10 or more, but that the numbers are being used disingenuously.

I want to engage in a much less rigorous exercise. I would think that a public high school in a small city, in a county-wide system where private schooling is rare, would constitute a comparatively random sampling of the population. I happened to grow up in such a school! We had about 500 people per class year at the start of freshman year, dwindling to 400 by graduation. In my year, there was actually a trans man who came out while still in school, and unfortunately ended up having to drop out because of transphobia. I ran into him later, and he mentioned two guys who were in school at the same time we were, but had only later transitioned. On the internets, I ran into an aquaintance of mine from high school, a year or two older than me, who was in transition, though she’s still having to live as a guy for legal reasons. AND, my sister’s ex, younger than me, also attended our high school during my tenure there. So, that leaves us with three boys and three girls out of 7 class years. (500*7)/6=1 out of 583–that I know of. If my class year were representative, that would mean 1/250–that I know of. Notably, Lynn Conway’s estimates (for trans women) are 1/250-1/500. (I seriously did not plan this conjuncture. And, actually, Conway’s numbers predict fewer people to have actually transitioned than that, but whatever.)

I’m not in good communication with people from high school. It’s entirely possible that double, triple, even ten times that number have transitioned already, and I’ve heard nothing of it. Furthermore, the age range we’re talking about here is 23-29. The likelihood that someone who will eventually transition has already done so isn’t anywhere in the vicinity of 100%, whatever that likelihood is. So, if my high school were representative of the US, then 1/583 is almost certainly lower than reality. Furthermore, my high school is in North Carolina–while it was known to be a comparatively queer friendly high school for North Carolina, I’d wager that disproportionately many attendees are/were repressing their transness.

How many trans folks would these “official” numbers predict?

(.51/30,400 + .49/11,900)*7*500=0.203 According to the APA, there shouldn’t have been any of us there, one of us is bucking the curve–let alone six. Hell, according to their math, there shouldn’t have been that many in the county, of which we were less than 10%.

The ratio: 6/0.203=29.6

So, my lower bound is 29.6 times higher than their estimate–not their lower bound, their estimate.

30 times, y’all.

(the use of three significant digits is actually kind of a jab at the people Conway is critiquing.)

This isn’t a rigorous test, at all. AT ALL. We’re talking seriously small numbers here. But while I don’t know statistics well enough to know the potential for this result to be caused by chance, and probably queer kids did disproportionately head to my high school, but by no means did everyone who applied get in… come on. Off by a factor of 3, yeah whatever, off by a factor of 30? When there are numerous reasons to think that my number is too low? It doesn’t make any sense.

(There’s also the matter of there not being 3 times as many girls as boys, hmm, wait, maybe their figure is caused by trans misogynistic pathologizing! no wai!)

Conway gives a lot of other examples as to why this is number is bonkers, go read it if you like, but bewarned that she uses “male” to refer to trans women and female to refer to men (that is, she uses them to mean MAAB/FAAB), that she’s way fucked up about trans folks who don’t get SRS even though she includes them/us, uses MTF/FTM as if they were completely unproblematic terms, and doesn’t gloss why her data on trans male transitions is scanty (which is at least in part about the data not being there because these things mostly get studied because of trans misogyny, but also likely her having some blinders on.).

So, one has to wonder: why? They’re scientists, they’re not stupid. They might be blinded by cissexual supremacy, they might have ulterior motives, but it needs explaining. Conway does some of that, but I want to take it to a higher level of analysis(or abstraction if you want to be negative about it).

Perhaps most importantly, it is the strong self-interest of psychiatrists to have their patients believe that transsexualism is incredibly rare, for then takes years of expensive counseling for the psychiatrist to be convinced that a patient is a “true transsexual” who needs SRS. Psychiatrists can reinforce a very “conservative, non-permissive” approach to treating transsexualism IF they can continue to assure society that “true transsexualism is incredibly rare”, and that most people who seek “sex changes” are mentally ill and in need of “shrinking” by psychiatrists to cure them of their “delusions”.

She also argues that the idea that TSness is 2-6 times less common than muscular dystrophy, rather than 10 times as common, & twice as common as MS, justifies the medical community ignoring it. I’m uncomfortable with the pathologizing of transsexuality, but it is true that transphobia (directly, and also indirectly, through capitalism) is really the only reason so little research that’s actually beneficial to us is being done–numbers like that cut right through the ‘oh but there are too few and you could never find them or do a rigorous double blind study’ routine.

BUT, both the chronic illness argument, and the quote she’s critiquing, AND any biologically-determinative argument about the cause of transsexuality (which is not the same as arguing that there are biological factors influencing one’s self-determination) justify ignoring the existence of trans people when we theorize reality.

I’ve touched on this before, I hope it’s made sense, but this should make it a bit more concrete.

All children in the US are forced into a gender and sex designation without their consent–some even before birth. It’s required by the US government. Almost all, but not all (yay!) parents compound this, sending their kid the message that ze *is* a girl or that ze *is* a boy & there are no other possibilities, that it’s not something they get to choose or change, and on top of that comes with intense coercive gender role training. Parents frequently don’t have much choice in the matter–go look at the children’s toys at your local Mega Death Mart–how many *aren’t* very strongly gendered? how many books for kids don’t train them into sexism? And schools? Good luck marching to the beat of your own gendered drummer.

Those of us who are trans can remember some of this pretty intensely as trauma, but the dominant discourse has been to say that that trauma is something about us–when, in fact, that trauma is only caused by being coerced into a sex we didn’t want to be in. And, yes, that word choice is very intentional. Running with the metaphor for a moment, let’s take a yes means yes approach, an explicit verbal consent approach to sex/gender, and let the damn kids choose it themselves. Looking at it this way, we can understand that cissexualizing infants is wrong, and potentially traumatic even to those who grow up not contesting that assignment. The absence of “no” is not consent.

Without that most basic form of gender coercion, the others (e.g. gender roles, The Gender BinaryTM) lose one of their most potent methods of cultural reproduction (that is, passing their social code from one generation to the next). Without that basic form of gender coercion, people will still use medical technologies to alter their bodies in gendered ways, but the separation between those that are “valid” and “real” versus those that are “invalid” and “fake,” the distinction between cis and trans, disappears. Without it, one might still have a dissonant reaction to one’s genitals/physical characteristics, but the difference is that it would be ‘incorrect’ or ‘unexpected’ rather than ‘wrong’–perhaps a source of confusion, but not shame, guilt, inferiority, or falseness.

Anyways, the point is, if the potential for a kid to say ‘no’ is so tiny as to be inconsequential, it’s easy to erase the coercion that happens to the kids who don’t say no. It justifies the ongoing violence and exclusion. It justifies theories of humanity/gender/whatever and social policies/politics that depend on our nonexistence for their coherence. It justifies policies and actions that “aren’t about us” and “aren’t transphobic” when it’s “just a coincidence” that they have disastrous effects on us. It justifies cis people not taking the time to educate themselves about transphobia and their concomitant expectation that their ignorance be treated as innocent/natural, it justifies the absence of trans people from spaces we might benefit from without institutional transphobia, it justifies our absence in decision-making-processes that affect us. It naturalizes evidence of our systematic economic marginalization. It justifies the continued practice of cis people claiming power within the trans community, and barring trans people from claiming power trans people’s lack of power within cis communities. It justifies lack of resources. It justifies single-gender bathrooms, prisons, etc, and the policing of such. It justifies well-we-should-have-our-rights-NOW,stop-trans-jacking, etc etc

I really need to write a post about how last year’s ENDA debacle serves to justify the “inclusive” bill, which in fact enshrines certain kinds of anti-trans-discrimination as normal and good, not discrimination.

12 Responses to “You call those statistics? What reality are you living in?”

  1. Allison said

    Coincidentally, I heard recently (Thursday?) that another guy who was at Carleton in my year has come out as trans.

    What I’ve been thinking about, because of this, is how hard it is on me to have the expectation that everyone else is cissexual and cisgendered. For me that’s an especially easy assumption to have about the academic world, and it’s nice to have that shaken up (because this guy has a similar career path to mine, at the moment.)

  2. Carto said

    Just as an anecdotal piece of evidence, I happen to know the exact numbers for the year 2003 in Finland: 24 women, 20 men: my source is the two psychiatrists responsible for treatments in Finland. The high estimate for the yearly cohort is 6000000/80: 75000 people (it’s probably 58000 or some such number, but I can’t get my hands to the accurate numbers now so I’ll just estimate upwards: it makes my point seem weaker than it actually is). Thus, the proportion of people from a yearly cohort seeking legal sex reassignment and/or hormones, or surgery during the year 2003 was 44/75000: one in 1705 people. This is a lower limit, and as far as I know the number of people seeking legal sex reassignment has doubled during the recent years. But even one in 1705 is hell of a lot more than all the official figures. By a factor of five, at the very least. I wonder when the WPATH folks have the guts to publish the numbers?

  3. As I work in IT and that is a profession with an extraordinary high ammount of transsexual women (I don’t know why that is) I expected that there would be people who out themselves to me when I transitioned on the job (or in related communities, where I was quite active and my change couldn’t be hidden without abandoning that valuable network). But it never happened. Only one coworker told me he has a transsexual men in his family.

  4. violet said

    More anecdotes…

    From my high school, I know of at least four other people (not counting myself!) who were there overlapping me who currently identify as trans or genderqueer, and at least one more who has seriously considered transitioning but I haven’t talked to them about gender recently enough to know how they identify.

    My high school class size was around 400, so I’ll assume there were about 2800 people who overlapped me. Not counting myself (due to the anthropic principle, I’m not sure counting myself would be fair) or the person whose current gender identity I don’t know, that’s still something like 1 in 700. That I know of. And I *definitely* didn’t know everyone, by a long shot. I hear updates about the lives of even fewer people.

    Still, it was known as a “geek” high school, which is likely to skew the numbers a little.

  5. Cedar said

    I’m not entirely sure I know what you mean by the anthropic principle, but I find it kinda significant that if we did count you, that gives us 1 in 560, which is very similar to my number… (though, I suppose if you didn’t count *me*, we’d have the exact same ratio, , 1 in 700…)

    • violet said

      It might not be exactly the anthropic principle, but I was meaning to make a reference to this, specifically the weak version of the principle:

      The idea I have in my head is that I’m not exactly sure how to account for the fact that it is because I’m trans and genderqueer that I care about these numbers. If it’s *me* counting, of course any school that I attended has at least me. Extending along that route, this suggests to me that schools without trans folks are unlikely to have anyone reporting anecdotes about them, which would bias the accounts you hear. It makes me reluctant to count myself in the ratio.

      Anyway, for further understanding of that ratio: I’m 25, so there’s plenty of possibility more people in that group of 2800 will come out in the future.

  6. Cedar said

    nod. I feel like that would be a lot more relevant if there was only us and one other person. As I mentioned, there are more trans people at my HS than one would expect for the county (though not by all that much), and I know there was at least one kid from a nearby school who transitioned.

    (I’m not totally sure why I’m not naming the high schools in question, but I’m not.)

  7. Clarisse said

    I agree with what you’re saying. But I think that the argument to dismantle gender expectations, cis privilege, et cetera should not be based on numbers/percentages of transpeople. I know that’s not necessarily what you’re saying, but I wanted to point it out — and to make a note that I think is just generally so important and worth repeating, viz: basing any argument against oppression on how many people are affected by that oppression means moving away from the central point (which should be “no one deserves to be oppressed”) and towards an unproductive numbers game.

    As a side note, I have found that many effective arguments against oppression focus on how the person you’re talking to is being affected, rather than yourself. That is … we’re probably more likely to make headway against cis privilege if we try to build a campaign at least partly on “cis privilege can be bad for cispeople because …”

    • Cedar said


      In response to “transpeople” and “cispeople”, please see my post about those terms here

      In response to your points, I’m deeply uncomfortable with focusing on how transphobia/cis privilege negatively impacts cis people. I think it’s an important dimension, and one that cis people should address, but asking trans people to do it gets into subservience territory, reinforcing the idea that trans people’s experiences and needs aren’t important, or as important as cis people’s, and that at one level or another we exist to serve/please them (this last being particularly relevant to trans women). That said, this post, in its analysis of transphobia, points to trauma against cis people that gets erased, but as one part of deconstructing an oppressive system as opposed to my main focus.

      And I have to disagree about the numbers issue. It is a justification used for erasing genocide, both against trans folks and against American Indians. It’s a deliberate underrepresentation that’s necessary for pathologizing transsexuality, keeping us under cissexual dominance in the medical establishment. The people who do it are either 1)aware that it’s false or 2)think so little of us that they can’t be bothered to question what some cis person said on the basis of trans people’s arguments, or, most likely, both–regardless, unlike representations that are spread by people who merely fail to question what’s been “common knowledge”, this involves a deeply cynical power play–and exposing that power play is necessary for delegitimating it. My focus here isn’t on numbers, it’s on power.

      Further, if only 0.005% of the population is a certain way, I find it hard to blame someone who doesn’t want to make structural changes on that basis. Pass a nondiscrimination act? Sure. Change the fundamental structure of child rearing, language, architecture, medicine, and law? not so much.

  8. Clarisse said

    Also, I found this rant on evol-psych that reminded me of recent discussions … 😀

  9. […] 11, 2009 So, in the comments of my February post You Call Those Statistics?, Clarisse raised the point that numbers shouldn’t be the issue, no-one-deserves-to-be-oppressed should be the i…: the argument to dismantle gender expectations, cis privilege, et cetera should not be based on […]

  10. […] a widespread trope that trans people are super rare and new, that most people have never heard of us and thus can’t know what to say. And of […]

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