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New UR study finds link between health issues and discrimination in transgender Americans

Brad Kutner | October 16, 2015

Understanding the issues felt daily by transgender individuals can be easy to talk about, but hard to relate to, but a new study from a University of Richmond professor aims to add context to the issues faced by the community.

“The cards are kind of stacked against trans people. And unfortunately, as they face more stressor like discrimination, they have fewer means to cope.” said Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman, a UR Assistant Professor of Sociology and second author on the new study The Social Costs of Gender Nonconformity for Transgender Adults: Implications for Discrimination and Health.

The 24 page paper, available online here, used data collected from a 2008 survey of trans folks, and came to conclusions many might not be surprised by.

Taking the data which said 70% of trans people have faced at least one instance of discrimination – either large cases where their livelihoods or lives are threatened, or smaller cases where people give you a hard time or they get excluded – and comparing it to the quality of their physical and mental health showed a strong correlation with negative health impacts.

Instances of self harm – drugs and alcohol, smoke cigarettes, suicide attempts, etc. – were increased in cases where people experienced discrimination more often.

Self harm techniques, like smoking a drugs, are coping mechanisms more readily available to the affected populations, according to Grollman,

“If you’re options for coping are limited, that’s where you have people returning to the these unhealthy means,” he said. “It’s a release, but its a harmful release.”

This leads to the development of other health problems like psychological distress, physical health problems, depression and other issues.

There were additional factors which played into levels of discrimination and the health effects suffered. How easily someone is identified, if they are more likely to “read” as transgender,  can also impact health issues.

Grollman said for people who are easily read as trans the frequency of discrimination is probably closer to 100%, but if you’re not often read as trans that number is probably a lot lower.

But let’s say a trans person realizes the issues they are facing are impacting their health. Grollman found when gender minorities seek medical attention, that too can lead to more discrimination from medical professionals and in turn more negative health effects.  According to the 08 study, trans people say they faced discrimination from a myriad of services usually associated with supporting the public like police officers and legal courts.

VCU’s medical campus is working to combat issues faced by trans people seeking healthcare – read more about it here.

“It’s interesting the place that’s supposed to heal you is contributing to these harmful behaviors,” he said.

To those with a personal connection to the trans community, none of this may come as a surprise, but the researchers behind the study hope their findings can help provide more ammo in the fight for trans equality.

Developing trans-inclusive protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations would be a great start for Grollman.

“That would be helpful to at least symbolically suggest this is no longer acceptable behavior,” he said. “We also need to work on educating people, raising awareness that trans people exist… to do away with the fear that sort of underlines a lot of discrimination against LGBTQ people in general.”

It could be easy to blame the self harm activities back on trans folks as well, but for Grollman, he sees it as an issue with the broader public’s handling of the topic.

“Its essentially a critique of society, not the people who are trying to survive in the society,” he said.

Grollman hopes this study, as well as continuing research into the discrimination trans people face, might help contribute to a better understanding of gender identity and expression. Getting away from the gender binary – man or woman – and recognizing gender diversity, could lead people to to accept others regardless “where they fall [on the spectrum]… instead of engaging in this automatic response to police someones gender.”