There’s a post which has recently been reappearing in my Tumblr dashboard on a regular basis. It’s a quote from an article in Guernica magazine (Trans-Formative Change) which in its opening sentence asserts that “The average life span of a transgendered person is twenty-three years“. The Tumblr quote is usually simply ‘liked’ and the few comments on it seem to be along the lines of “OMG teh poor trans ppl this is shocking“. While I’m broadly in agreement with the sentiment of the commenters, the authoritative tone of the assertion didn’t sit at all comfortably with me. Twenty-three years? Really?
From my point of view, part of the problem with much mainstream reporting on trans issues arises from a lack of understanding of basic terminology (although I also accept that there seem to be many definitions of transgender and transsexual; the recent flame wars on some other blogs bear witness to that), and another part of the problem is the lack of availability of long-term, coordinated research into the lived experiences of trans people.
I emailed the editors at Guernica to ask where the figure came from and they referred me to a 2010 article in The Daily Texan (caution: contains problematic reporting).
[...] Because of high rates of suicide, homicide and homelessness that impact the trans community, the international average life expectancy for a trans person is 23, according to the Equity (sic) Network.
Tracking back from there to the website of the Equality Network, it seems that the Daily Texan reporter has taken a speculative comment and rewritten it as if it’s an absolute, objective fact (this is not the first time I’ve seen journalists do this and I doubt it’ll be the last). The original wording on the Equality Network site is:
Globally average transgender person’s life expectancy believed to be around 23 – due to suicide, murder, and large percentages of transgender young teenagers in various countries ending up homeless and involved in drugs/prostitution/crime. [Via Crossing the Strands: Transgender workshops]
The key phrase there is “believed to be“: a significantly different emphasis from stating that it “is“. It’s also interesting to note that the Equality Network quote is from a 2007 report of a conference workshop although the origin of the “twenty-three years” figure is not attributed to any specific source. However, it’s interesting to note that, according to a 2007 UK survey, the average age for trans women undergoing surgery between 2004 and 2007 was 41 years. (Direct link to PDF of Feminizing genitoplasty in adult transsexuals: early and long-term surgical results – caution: contains graphic images)
I realise that it’s often accepted that the average age of transitioning (and by inference, the average age of trans people, too) is falling – due to such factors as increased awareness and acceptance – but I’m still finding it difficult to square the stated life expectancy of 23 with the age of surgery as 41. Even though not all trans people undergo surgery, it still seems a big discrepancy – and I do think that the continued publication of poorly-researched journalism, even when it adopts a generally supportive stance towards trans people, still manages to subliminally reinforce the erroneous ideas that many cis people have about us. Consequently, for all its good intentions, it actually contributes to obstructing, not supporting, us in our struggle for social justice and human rights.
Shorter Helen: I’ve not been able to verify the authenticity of the statement “The average life span of a transgendered person is twenty-three years“.
Homer Simpson: “Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.”