i know you meant well when you said 30 isnt ancient, but im nb so my life expectancy is actually 30 :(
Hey anon, I’m so sorry that that’s a fear you’ve had to live with. I know that trans people are at greater risk of violence and suicide, and I’ve heard people say many times that the life expectancy of trans people (or trans women, or trans women of color, depending on who you ask) is anywhere from 23 to 35. Your ask troubled me, so I’ve dug deep looking for solid evidence of any of these, and I don’t believe that these statistics are true.
A trans woman, Helen, looked into the “23 years” claim and traced it back to someone’s notes on two workshops at a 2007 conference, which stated that trans people’s life expectancy is “believed to be around 23” (emphasis mine) but cites no actual source. This claim has been presented as fact in many news articles since then, but as far as I can tell, no one seems to know where this figure came from.
Another claim is often sourced to an Argentine psychologist quoted in this NPR article:
Psychologist Graciela Balestra, who works closely with the transgender community, says it’s an especially vulnerable population.
“Transgender people have an average life expectancy of about 30 to 32 years,” Balestra says. “They don’t live any longer; I think that statistic alone says so much.”
But again, the article gives no source for this figure.
I found an article claiming that a 2014 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) “concludes the average life expectancy of trans people in the Western Hemisphere is between 30-35 years.” However, when I tracked down the report, An Overview of Violence Against LGBTI Persons (pdf), its only reference to this is (emphasis mine): “[T]he IACHR has received information that the life expectancy of trans women in the Americas is between 30 and 35 years of age.” Again, this is no source.
Someone said on my post that these statistics may have come from the NCTE/NGLTF report Injustice at Every Turn (pdf), but I can’t find any reference to any such claim in the report.
Thinking about these claims, they seem unlikely for some basic reasons. Consider that we simply don’t have a long enough span of data on trans people, and that what data we do have is extremely limited because we can’t always know who is trans and who isn’t. Consider also that, although obviously the murder rates for trans people are extremely high, the number of deaths of 20-something trans people would have to be ENORMOUS to offset the existence of older trans people and bring the average down to 30. Especially since, unlike with racial groups for example, the data on trans people would likely include almost no childhood deaths, simply because it would be much more difficult (and in many cases impossible) to identify these children as trans. And since we know that trans women of color are extremely disproportionately affected by violence, statistics that include white people and/or trans men would be especially unlikely to be so low.
And as to your specific situation anon, again given that trans women of color are most at risk, I don’t think we have reason to believe that being non-binary specifically puts a person at anywhere near this level of increased risk of dying young.
I don’t say any of this to question anyone’s experiences or to deny the state of emergency that trans women face with regard to violence. That is very real. But I think it can be harmful, even dangerous to trans people to spread claims like this around, especially without evidence. Expecting to die by 30 would take an extreme emotional toll on anyone, and trans people deserve better.
But don’t take my word for it: FORGE, a national transgender anti-violence organization that works with trans survivors of sexual assault, wrote the following in its 2016 publication “First Do No Harm: 8 Tips for Addressing Violence Against Transgender and Gender Non-Binary People” (pdf) (I have moved two footnotes into the main text and provided links to some endnote sources; italicized emphasis is theirs while bold is mine.):
Promote Hope for the Future
It certainly is not the same as a murder, but publicizing a low “life expectancy” rate for transwomen of color is another way to steal away their future, a “crime” that has been committed repeatedly by trans, LGBQ, and mainstream press. Think about the people you know or have heard of who have been diagnosed with a fatal illness and given a short time to live: how many of them have enrolled in college, undertaken lengthy training for a new occupation, had a new child, or tried to establish a new non-profit? A few do, certainly, but many more focus on their bucket list, arrange for their good-byes, or simply give up entirely, essentially relinquishing whatever time they have left to depression and regrets. When we tell transwomen of color they cannot expect to live very long, we rob them of hope. We rob them of any motivation to invest in themselves, their relationships, and their communities. We rob them, in short, of their lives even while they are still living. (This statement in no way negates the need to systemically work to improve and increase the life expectancy of trans people through working to end transphobia, racism, poverty, pervasive violence, and health and healthcare inequities, and more.)
One trans woman of color was trying to come to grips with an estimated lifespan figure more than ten years shorter than the one that has been published most often. (We are not repeating any of the (incorrect) estimated lifetime figures that are circulating, to avoid even inadvertent reinforcement.) Faced with the report of yet another attack on another trans woman, she wrote:
These days, I look at the latest reports of stabbed, shot, beaten trans women, search myself for tears, and I cannot find a thing. I want to mourn and rage. I want to honor all of our sisters — the hundreds each year who are ripped, namelessly and without fanfare, from this life — who are taken so young before their time. But the grief and anger — even empathy — do not come. I don’t feel anything but numbness and fatigue, and somewhere far below that, fear.
The terrible irony of the life expectancy “fact” is that it is based on an impossibility. The only ways to determine a given population’s life expectancy are to: examine decades or more of death certificates or census data containing the information being studied, or follow a specific set of individuals for around 100 years and record every single death. There is not and never has been a census of transgender people. Our death certificates do not mark us as transgender. There has been no 100-year-long study of a representative group of trans people. So where are the estimated lifespan figures coming from?
FORGE tracked the most commonly-cited figure back to what was most likely the 2014 Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference, where a workshop presenter gave the figure and explained she had calculated it by averaging the age of death for all of those listed on the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) website. This means the figure is actually the average age of those trans people who were both murdered and came to the attention of someone who added them to the TDOR list. Interestingly, this average is very close to the average age of everyone who is murdered in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Justice statistics. [I’m not seeing an average age given in the cited source but you can see on page 5 of this Bureau of Justice Statistics report (pdf) that the average age of homicide victims in the U.S. was between 30 and 35 from 1980 to 2008.]
But not everyone is murdered.
Despite how many there may appear to be, only a tiny, tiny fraction of transpeople are killed by other people. Most of us, transwomen of color included, live average lifespans and die of the most common U.S. killers — heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, and unintentional injuries (accidents).
Please don’t add to fear and hopelessness by spreading inaccurate and profoundly disempowering data.
Since I can’t respond to everyone directly, I’m @ing some people who’ve brought this up on my post and may be interested: (urls removed after posting for their privacy). I appreciate your thoughtfulness in bringing this to my attention. If you or anyone else has a source on any of these figures that can provide specific methodology, I’d be very grateful to see that.
In closing, here are some resources that provide a more hopeful view of trans aging. They are well known but I hope they will be helpful to someone.
- To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Older Adults
- #RealLiveTransAdult and RealLifeTransAdult.com
- Trans Elders’ Life Histories, an upcoming oral history project which will hopefully be available soon in the University of Victoria Transgender Archives
- SAGE: Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders, where you can potentially volunteer with trans and other LGBT seniors
- GRIOT Circle, a Brooklyn organization supporting LGBTQ elders of color