How Big Is the Transgender Population?

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Photo: Toshi Sasaki/Getty Images

There’s no national data on the size of the transgender population because official record collectors like the United States Census Bureau don’t ask about gender identity. And, for many, gender is fluid, flexible, or not easily defined by a multiple-choice survey. Getting an accurate count is further complicated by the discrimination and violence that force many transgender individuals to hide their identity or never transition.

But population numbers are essential in securing public services and medical assistance, as well as tracking discriminatory practices — and so, recently, the Census Bureau used existing Social Security Administration data to try to get a rough number.

In last month’s paper, Census economist Benjamin Cerf Harris looked at people who’d changed their names to those typically associated with the opposite gender and/or registered a different sex with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Harris found that since the SSA began in 1936, 135,367 people have altered their name to one of the opposite gender and a little more than 30,000 have changed their sex accordingly. Of those who’d participated in the 2010 census, nearly 90,000 had changed their name and 21,883 had changed their sex, too.

These numbers likely undercount the transgender population, which other surveys have suggested is significantly higher. The data doesn’t include those who haven’t notified the SSA of their transition, people with gender-neutral names, those who haven’t changed their names, and noncitizens. Additionally, from 2002 to 2013, the SSA required proof of genital surgery before allowing the official recording of a sex change, a requirement (since abandoned) that doesn’t take into account the full spectrum of how transgender people choose to mark their transition.

Nonetheless, quantitative data is useful in establishing information on the lives of transgender people. Accordingly, most transgender people are in their mid-30s when they start registering name or sex transitions with the SSA. Transgender women tend to do so later than transgender men. Harris’s work showed that states with laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual identity (like Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) have larger shares of transgender people. States without these discrimination laws (like the Dakotas, Alabama, and Louisiana) have the smallest percentage of documented transgender residents. These disparities are probably due both to transgender people gravitating toward safer communities and the necessity of hiding their identity in inhospitable climates.

In the past, most data on the transgender population, which likely hovers somewhere between 0.1 and 0.5 percent of the total population, has come from surveys. But respondents to gender-identity surveys tend to be disproportionately younger, white, and educated. The Census Bureau is currently working with various LGTBQ organizations to improve measurements of various gender and sexual identities, but the 2020 Census is not slated to collect data on transgender people.

How Big Is the Transgender Population?