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UCLA researchers to lead study surveying U.S. transgender population

By Emily Liu

April 3, 2015 1:16 a.m.

Researchers at UCLA are leading a new study that aims to obtain an accurate snapshot of the transgender population in the United States.

The yearlong study, which was announced earlier this week, will be the first of its kind to use random sampling methods to obtain data about the transgender community. Researchers expect to find out about the racial distribution of transgender individuals, their socioeconomic backgrounds, their access to health care and their experiences. Ilan Meyer, senior scholar of public policy and researcher at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, will lead the study, titled “TransPop: U.S. Transgender Population Health Survey.”

“TransPop” will take place in conjunction with a five-year “Generations” research project focusing on the lesbian, gay and bisexual populations in the U.S. done by the Williams Institute.

From about 350,000 individuals in the U.S. who are surveyed by Gallup annually, individuals who identify themselves as transgender will be invited to participate in “TransPop.” About 1,000 transgender individuals are expected to be screened by Gallup for the study, with 300 to 500 of them expected to participate in “TransPop,” Meyer said.

“Although we’ve gained a lot of information about transgender individuals from studies over the years, the question we’re trying to answer is if you took a random sample of the U.S. population, how many of them would identify as transgender?” Meyer said.

The project will be funded in part by a $3.4 million grant for “Generations” and an additional $285,000 grant for “TransPop,” both from the National Institutes of Health.

The U.S. census, the largest source of population demographic statistics in the nation, does not ask about sexual orientation or gender identity.

Meyer said he thinks the results of “TransPop” will contribute to other studies in the field.

“It’s going to be a huge contribution to the field because we can now put into perspective where a particular study sample belongs in terms of the entire transgender population as a whole,” Meyer said.

Determining the size of the transgender population accurately has always been difficult, said Tristin Rose, a chemistry graduate student and transgender rights advocate.

“A question that frequently comes up when trying to figure out how to better serve the transgender population is ‘How many transgender people are there?'” Rose said. “And the answer is that we don’t know.”

At UCLA, the number of transgender students, staff and faculty is unclear because the university does not collect that information, said Raja Bhattar, director of the UCLA’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Resource Center.

The term “transgender” is also broad and difficult to define, Bhattar said.

“What does it mean to be transgender? It is such a large umbrella term,” Battar said. “How do you quantify? We’re not going to get a perfect number.”

Discrimination may also discourage people from identifying as transgender even when asked, Rose said.

“It’s almost certain that many transgender individuals won’t check the box,” Rose said. “Even if they might like to, the potential ramifications to their safety may not be worth the risk.”

Nevertheless, Bhattar said he thinks the numbers are important in providing tangible information that will inform and spur policy change.

“This is really kind of a beginning,” Meyer said. “Our survey with Gallup will also help others who want to include questions about gender identity in their surveys to look at how well our methods worked or not.”

The study, done in collaboration with faculty from Columbia University and the Fenway Institute at Fenway Health, is slated to begin in July and is currently planned as a one-time survey.

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