CDC: Transgender Students Are Facing Disproportionately High Risks

"We hope this sheds a light on the kind of oppression transgender people face at every age."

Transgender students are at a disproportionately higher risk than cisgender students for violence victimization, substance use, and suicide risk, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday, the agency released one of the first large-scale assessments about the current state of transgender students in the United States. The findings underscore the serious threats this young population faces and emphasize a need for change. The announcement came just two days after President Donald Trump enforced his ban on transgender people serving in the US military.

The CDC report was based on population-based survey data from ten state and nine urban school districts showing that an average of 1.8 percent of high school students identify as transgender. The students were asked about the past 12 months of their lives — whether they were ever threatened or hurt, had sex, used substances, and felt hopeless or considered suicide. Overall, transgender students experienced more violence victimization that cisgender students, including the horrific finding that 23.8 percent reported ever being forced to have sexual intercourse and that 26.4 percent have experienced physical dating violence.

“We have only recently begun to study and understand the health-related behaviors and experiences of transgender youth,” lead author Michelle Johns, MPH, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “However, research suggests that stigma, discrimination, harassment, violence, and other factors can put them at increased risk for negative health and life outcomes.”

Participants at a transgender solidarity rally and march in Washington, D.C. 

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Susan Maasch, the director of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, believes studies like this are important because they underscore what advocates, students, and families already observe. The Trans Youth Equality Foundation is a national nonprofit that advocates for transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex youth between the ages of 2 and 18.

“With a marked increase in transphobia, we hope this [study] sheds a light on the kind of oppression transgender people face at every age,” Maasch tells Inverse. “It’s no surprise to those that work with this community and is of not enough concern to the current administration in the White House. Our job is to give students hope, recognize the many that are resilient, increase support, and thank our allies.”

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court revived President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban to go into effect. Transgender people have served openly in all branches of the military since June 2016 and have been only permitted to enlist in the military since January 2018. There are still legal battles that could upend the decision, but if the decision remains it will dismantle the lives of current transgender military members and prevent transgender persons from joining.

A demonstrator waves a transgender pride flag at a vigil in Portland, Oregon for the victims of the Pulse nightclub attack. 

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The researchers behind this new CDC study reinforce the knowledge that transgender individuals are negatively targeted starting at a young age. They write that their findings accentuate the need for more research and indicate that these teenagers would benefit from interventions, like a safe and supportive school environment and “culturally competent health services.” Johns says explains it’s well-understood that protective factors can buffer all youth, including transgender youth, from a variety of health risks. Those protective factors can take the form of positive connections to family and trust adults outside of family, parent engagement, involvement in social activities, and a connectedness to school.

This factors, ideally, could serve to buffer the crisis laid out here in numbers: 27 percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school, 25 percent are bullied at school, and 35 percent have attempted suicide.

“Our studies findings highlight the opportunity for school-based programmatic efforts and for families, as well as communities, to assist and support transgender students,” Johns says. “Taking steps to create safe learning environments and provide access to culturally competent physical and mental health care may be important first steps to improving the health of these students.”

Continued research and data collection on gender identity, Johns says, is also critical for understanding and addressing the disparities witnessed here. For example, while this study found that transgender students were more likely to report sexual risk behaviors and substance use, this survey did not go into the influences that drive those events. What is clear is that young transgender students are in danger.

“Discrimination will be the lasting legacy of our lifetime,” Maasch says. “Trans youth are getting stronger, and we will stay the course.”

If you or a loved one are experiencing crisis, there are a number of resources available. The peer support service Trans Lifeline is 877-565-8860.

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