There are more of us than you think

The "official count" of the country's transgender population dramatically underestimates its size and composition. Part 4 of The Advocate's ongoing transgender series.

BY Joanne Herman

May 12 2006 12:00 AM ET

Next time you
find yourself in a crowd of 5,000 people, consider this: In
the crowd there will be on average one person living with
muscular dystrophy. There will also be on average two
people who have already undergone male-to-female
sex-reassignment surgery. And there may as many as 75
in that crowd who fall under the transgender umbrella. Are
you surprised?

For years, the
only statistics available on transgender prevalence were
those first developed in the 1960s and 1970s. These
statistics, as still cited in the American Psychiatric
Association’s most recent Diagnostic and
Statistics Manual,
DSM-IV, “suggest
that roughly one per 30,000 adult males and one per 100,000
adult females seek [sex-reassignment surgery].”

Thank goodness
Lynn Conway could not believe these low numbers. Lynn is a
noted computer scientist and distinguished professor emerita
of engineering who transitioned from male to female in
the 1960s and then lived “stealth,” or
closeted about her transgender status, before coming
out in 2000 (more about “stealth,” and Lynn,
in upcoming columns). Shortly after her coming-out,
Lynn turned her highly analytical brain toward
understanding the statistics.

Her skepticism
was based on simple reasoning. If the psychiatrists were
right, there would be only three or four thousand MTFs in
the United States who had ever sought surgery. Under
the optimistic assumption that only 20% or so would
have been able to afford or attain surgery, there
would be fewer than 800 postoperative women in the country
today. Impossible, she cried, given that the top
sex-reassignment surgery surgeons in the United States
alone perform that many MTF SRS operations every
single year.

Lynn then
extended her logic to come up with much more realistic and
believable numbers for transsexuals and then the entire
transgender population, revealing large errors in the
psychiatrists’ old claims. All of Lynn’s
reasoning and estimates are detailed on her tremendously
valuable Web site, www.lynnconway.com.

Why don’t
we have better “official numbers?” Lynn
postulates that (1) psychiatrists don’t
question the numbers because they don’t see the
significant number of transsexuals who manage to transition
without their “help,” and (2) because
more accurate numbers showing a much larger prevalence
would be bad for the psychiatry business—and its bias
toward marginalizing transsexualism as an extremely
rare “mental illness.”

So what about
statistics for female-to-male trans people? The old
official stats imply that there are less than a third as
many FTMs as MTFs. I used to believe that. After all,
when I first started attending transgender
conferences, the attendees were overwhelmingly individuals
presenting as females. And then one day, wanting to know
more about the seemingly elusive FTMs, I read Jamison
Green’s fabulous book, Becoming a Visible Man. 

James is a
charismatic (and handsome, even to this lesbian) writer and
activist who transitioned FTM in the late 1980s. In his
book, James states the obvious: FTMs were simply not
interested in the feminine grooming tips and female
hormones being discussed in conferences and support
groups that largely catered to MTF trans people. But gender
counseling providers assumed the groups had broader appeal
and that the men actually stayed away to be
self-sufficient like “other” men. This
became self-perpetuating when the professionals actively
told patients that men “like to go it
alone.”

James showed how
this thinking deprived FTMs of role models, and more
importantly of an awareness of just how many others were out
there. Fortunately the treatment of FTMs is much less
monolithic these days, and FTMs have learned that
“communication among men does not threaten their
independence.” There are now FTM-centric conferences
like True Spirit and Gender Odyssey, and FTMs are now
quite visible in the LGBT community and on college
campuses across the country. Current thinking is that the
prevalence of FTMs is much closer to the prevalence of MTFs.

But my fellow
trustees at the Point Foundation are convinced that there
are considerably more FTMs. We award scholarships to
undergraduate and graduate students whom we feel will
be the LGBT leaders of tomorrow. Our evaluation
process is rigorous. That process has resulted in seven of
the 77 scholarships to date going to transgender
students, and all seven of them were FTMs. This year I
personally reviewed the applications from all of the
transgender students, and I was stunned to see that well
over 80% were from FTMs. Where are all the MTFs?

I asked Lynn
Conway, who as a professor emerita spends a fair amount of
time on college campuses, for her take on this. Lynn points
out that while accepting of girls who present as
“tomboys,” our society still has
incredibly deep hang-ups about boys presenting in a feminine
way. This stigmatization results in an alarming number
of young MTF kids being thrown away or disowned by
their parents, even before they reach college age.

Of the MTFs who
do manage to enter college, the vast majority remain
totally closeted so as to avoid ostracism. Lynn also notes
that some campus LGBT offices remain dominated by
second-wave feminist thinking, which tends to look
askance at anyone who appears to them to preserve
feminine stereotypes. Although such offices may honor the
FTM in transition, they often aren’t places
where young MTFs feel welcome, leading to a big
asymmetry in visible numbers on campuses.

It is situations
like this that limit awareness of the size of the
transgender population. There actually are a lot of us, and
only when the transgender stigma finally crumbles will
everyone finally see all of us.

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