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Laverne Cox says we can’t help transgender people if we don’t even count them

SGS15-CaseyKelbaugh-03ToBeCounted-00797-Sep28-12.58By Katie Dupere From Mashable

Actress and activist Laverne Cox speaks about transgender population data at the 2015 Social Good Summit on Sept. 28, 2015.

When Laverne Cox graced the cover of TIME magazine in 2014, the cover proclaimed that the United States was at a “transgender tipping point.” That bold statement has become a moment many point to as the beginning of transgender rights and identities becoming catapulted into the public eye.

But there is one powerful piece of the puzzle missing when it comes to thinking about transgender identities — we don’t actually know how many trans people are in the United States. Or the world, for that matter.

Census data has historically focused on the binary gender options: male and female. Emmy-nominated actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox is critical of that fact. The census doesn’t include her, and people like her, by assuming everyone is born into the gender they will forever identify.

“What message are we sending to those who are trans and gender nonconforming when we don’t even count them?”

“What message are we sending to those who are trans and gender nonconforming when we don’t even count them?” Cox asked. “We suggest that their identities don’t even matter.”

Cox spoke with Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project, and Cecilia Chung, senior strategist of the Transgender Law Center about the lack of data on transgender populations worldwide at the 2015 Social Good Summit on Monday.

While popularly cited estimates put the transgender population at about 700,000 individuals in the U.S., that estimate is undoubtedly flawed — and the demographer who put out that number know it.

Gary Gates, an LGBTQ demographer at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, pulled that number from limited data in two U.S. states — California and Massachusetts. But even Gates has been vocal about the estimates substantial limitations, adding that the only way to do better is to use nationwide surveys.

The panel focused the lack of nationwide surveys like the one Gates is calling for — and the violence trans people face because of stigma of not being counted as a valuable population.

“This year alone, we’ve reported 19 homicides of transgender and gender non-conforming folks alone,” Shelby said. “And, of those, 17 were trans women of color.”

Cox said that violence — the trans lives lost, the discrimination experienced — is directly related to inadequate data.

“I was thinking that visibility is only part of the equation,” she said, speaking about solving the cycle of violence against trans folks. “We must have social policy, systemic change. And then I thought about the Census. Systemically, this idea of the gender binary is very much institutionalized in the fact that we just don’t count trans people.”

Actually counting transgender folks is an important step in gaining a complete view of the discrimination and inequalities they face, Chestnut added, explaining that data collection is a fundamental step to intervene in the cycle of violence.

“If we really do push this Census data collection, we’ll see the systemic issues trans people are facing: housing discrimination, underemployment or employment discrimination, lack of [gender affirming] education,” Chestnut said.

Our inability and unwillingness to count trans folks makes it so one in the world right now can accurately name how many trans people exist in the nation. Chung suggests that fact in itself is a form of violence.

“No one is actually acknowledging our legitimacy to exist,” Chung said.

Data isn’t only numbers: it’s acknowledgement that a group of people is valued enough to be counted and considered — and that translates into governmental support and consideration.

“In order for any government to do a better job to serve their citizens, they need to know who their citizens are,” Chung said.

The Social Good Summit is a two-day conference examining the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world. Held during U.N. Week on Sept. 27 and 28, the Social Good Summit unites a dynamic community of global leaders and grassroots activists to discuss solutions for the greatest challenges of our time.

This year’s summit is brought to you by Mashable, the United Nations Foundation, the UNDP and the 92nd Street Y. For complete event details, visit here:

Image: Casey Kelbaugh/Mashable

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