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The Biggest Trans Survey in the U.S. Is Under Way; Why It Matters

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The survey is open until November 21.

(CNN) -- Federal surveys like the US Census are gradually taking their transgender respondents into account. But they rarely ask specific questions unique to trans life: Have they been denied access to reproductive health care? Is their life better than it was before they came out as trans?

Enter the US Trans Survey, the largest survey in the country specifically geared toward trans and nonbinary people. Conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and open until November 21, its results will be quoted by journalists, academics and legislators for the next five years.

The survey is especially important now, given the intense focus on the rights of trans Americans in political arenas. Trans residents of the US remain an understudied population that represents half a percent of all Americans -- there are an estimated 1.6 million trans people 13 and older living in the US, according to the Williams Institute, UCLA Law's LGBTQ think tank -- but continue to be targeted by lawmakers.

"This is the kind of data our community is desperate for, fighting against bigotry that trans people have to endure," said Josie Caballero, the director of the US Trans Survey and special projects at the NCTE. "This is a community-led survey by trans people, for trans people."

What to expect on the US Trans Survey

The US Trans Survey asks trans and nonbinary people an expansive range of questions about their experiences living in the US. They'll be asked about their family life, health and employment, for starters, along with newly expanded sections on Covid-19, incarceration and school life, among others. (The survey asks different respondents different questions based on their earlier responses; veterans, for example, will be asked about their experiences in the military.)

The goal, said Caballero, is to give trans and nonbinary respondents a chance to share experiences they wouldn't be asked about in the US Census -- relevant questions that speak specifically to their lives.

"I call it the US trans census," Caballero said. "This is the only time our community gets asked a lot of these questions."

Some examples, paraphrased: if you take public transit, do you feel safe while you're on it? If you've gone through TSA at the airport and were flagged for a second security screening, what were your public accommodations like? If you've seen a mental health care provider, did they affirm your gender identity?

This year, researchers lowered the age of eligibility to 16, potentially expanding the survey's respondent pool in an attempt to learn more about trans young people -- a particularly important group of respondents, given how many states have attempted to limit trans teens' access to gender-affirming care or school sports.

The survey is also open to anyone living in the US and its territories, regardless of citizenship status. Also invited to respond are nonbinary and gender nonconforming respondents -- even people questioning whether they may be trans or nonbinary are welcome, Caballero said. And the survey's creators have taken care to protect the identities of respondents: Since they obtained a Certificate of Confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health, they can legally refuse to share respondents' identifying information if requested by courts on the local, state and federal level.

Survey organizers have identified several "priority groups" whose answers could fill important gaps in data on the lives of trans people. Those groups include people of color, older adults, rural Americans, immigrants and people living with HIV/AIDS, Caballero said.

Why it's important

The 2015 US Trans Survey was the largest of its kind, with more than 27,700 respondents across the US. The 2022 survey aims to be even more expansive, said Jody Herman, the survey's co-principal investigator and senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute.

"The USTS tries to reach as many trans people in the US as possible," Herman said, noting that many of its questions are designed to measure how the survey's respondents compare to the general US population.

"Research in academia, medicine, by community organizations, and others are working to fill gaps in our knowledge about trans people, but substantial gaps still exist in many areas," Herman told CNN. "Studies like the USTS will still be needed because they ask questions that are unique to trans people's experiences, questions that wouldn't be included in federal surveys."

The survey was crafted with the help of several organizations that serve trans people of color, including the TransLatin@ Coalition, the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition (BTAC) and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA). Leaders from these groups suggested questions to the research team that reflect the experiences of the members they serve.

Bamby Salcedo, president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition, said she advocated for a Spanish version of the survey to make sure Spanish speakers could access it, too. She's been involved in the creation of the survey, suggesting questions and phrasing with trans Latina respondents in mind. Now that the survey is out, she's encouraging community members to visit her organization's Los Angeles offices, where they can take the survey for free using provided tablets and ask questions if they have them.

"This obviously is a national survey, and we wanted to make sure that we are part of it, but we as an organization continue to empower our community and make sure that we advocate for our specific needs," Salcedo told CNN.

Its results could impact policy decisions

It could take more than a year to analyze data collected in the survey, Caballero said, especially considering the volume of responses the NCTE has already received.

But once researchers have the data they need, they'll release those findings to the public in several formats: There will be a general report, of course, but researchers also plan to publish specific reports that relate to the aforementioned priority groups.

The 2015 survey has been widely cited since its results were published. From the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus to local governments, advocacy groups like the Transgender Law Center and the National Network to End Domestic Violence and most mainstream media outlets, including CNN, the data collected seven years ago has been used to educate readers on the trans experience, as well as to create policies to protect trans people.

"It's a data source that will continue to have a lasting impact to educate the public, media, educators, policymakers, and will advance research to help fill some of those existing knowledge gaps," Herman said.

The results will be especially important in helping refute unfounded claims many lawmakers have shared about trans people, particularly trans youth. Some of the questions in the study are being asked for the first time and speak directly to anti-trans talking points, including the experience of trans young people who play school sports.

For the 2022 survey to surpass the prior one in terms of inclusivity, it needs to reach as many folks as possible. Celebrities like Elliot Page and local trans coalitions have encouraged their followers to take the survey and make their voices heard -- they have until November 21 to share their experiences.

"This opportunity comes every five years," Salcedo said. "This is the time for us to ensure that we let the world know what needs to happen in order for us to have a better world and better society."

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