The White House is using recklessly imprecise language
Following the example of various activist organisations, the White House recently stated that there is an ongoing “epidemic” of violence against transgender people in the United States. Many, including Twitter CEO Elon Musk, have responded by questioning whether this assertion is rooted in fact. To cut through the speculation, it’s worth looking at the data.
Claims of an “epidemic” of violence against transgender Americans have been around since at least 2015. It’s unclear exactly what is meant, but a reasonable way of interpreting these headlines is that transgender people experience substantially higher rates of violence than non-transgender people.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
There’s an added complication: if transgender people do experience higher rates of violence, that could be for reasons other than their gender identity. They could be overrepresented in certain high-risk categories, with gender identity itself having no independent effect. In that case, it might still be reasonable to speak of an “epidemic of violence” — though the statement would need to be qualified.
As the sociologist Laurel Westbrook notes, research on violence against transgender people has been hampered by a lack of good data and over-reliance on convenience samples. The number of transgender people is small to begin with. And since gender identity has only come to the forefront of public discussion in the last decade or so, many surveys have only recently added germane questions.
What’s more, simply asking respondents whether they are “male”, “female” or “transgender” can lead to error, given that some transgender people prefer to answer “male” or “female”. One way of getting around this is to include an additional question asking respondents for their natal sex.
With all that said, there are several studies worth considering.
In 2021, Andrew Flores and colleagues analysed data from the National Crime Victimisation Survey — a large, nationally representative survey administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They found that transgender people experienced personal violence at a rate four times higher than non-transgender people — albeit with a large confidence interval (owing to the small number of transgender people in the sample).
This finding would seem to support the “epidemic of violence” narrative. Yet the comparison was unadjusted, and evidence from homicide rates appears to go in the other direction.
In 2017, Alexis Dinno of Portland State University estimated homicide rates for transgender people using data from publicly available databases compiled by activists. She then compared these to homicide rates for non-transgender people under different assumptions about the size of the transgender population and the extent of undercounting of transgender homicides. Dinno found that in eight out of 12 comparisons, homicide rates for transgender people were lower.
In a subsequent analysis of one activist-compiled database, the political scientist Wilfred Reilly observed that the murder rate for transgender Americans was lower than that for the general population.
These findings were replicated in a 2022 study by Tom Fouché and colleagues at the University of Chicago, who used the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System — a large database that collates data from a number of sources, such as health authorities and law enforcement. The researchers found that transgender people made up 0.1% of homicide victims, compared to a typical population estimate of 0.6% (though they suggest this may be due to inaccurate reporting.)
Overall, then, the evidence is mixed. One recent study found that transgender people face higher rates of personal violence than non-transgender people, whereas several others have found that they face lower rates of homicide. Given this lack of consistency, and the general paucity of research, referring to an “epidemic of violence” does not seem justified. The White House should moderate its language.