A new study funded by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is revealing insights into the needs of the local transgender community. The Assessment of the Health Needs of the Transgender Community in Montana is the first of its kind in the state. As part of the study, about 120 people took a comprehensive online survey this spring, answering questions about their personal history and health.
Annie Sondag, a health and human performance professor at the University of Montana, conducted the study along with others in the UM Community Health Program. She also collaborated with the Missoula-based nonprofit Gender Expansion Program.
It's difficult to pin down the number of trans and gender-nonconforming Montanans, though there might be as many as 2,500–10,000, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Sondag says 120 survey responses isn't as big a sample size as she hoped for, but the answers still provided a wealth of information.
"The thing that came to light is that gender is not binary," she says. "Thirty percent of respondents did not identify as either gender.'"
A staggering 53 percent of survey respondents replied they had tried to kill themselves. That's higher than the national rate of attempted suicide for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, which is 41 percent, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Sondag says a factor that made a huge difference in mental well-being was social support—and surprisingly, support from coworkers and neighbors was statistically more significant in reducing risk of suicide than support from families or spouses.
"I think that's kind of important for people to recognize their support of their transgender or gender-nonconforming coworkers, and how they feel when they go home at night to their neighborhoods," she says. "Do they feel safe, do they feel like people support them?"
- photo by Bonnie Chan
- Anita Green is one of 120 respondents to a recent study of transgender Montanans. She’s also Missoula’s first openly transgender city council candidate, running in the upcoming Ward 2 primary.
The major impetus for the study was to learn about STD rates since, nationwide, trans people are among the highest risk groups for HIV infection. Sondag says transgender Montanans seemed to buck that trend and weren't especially high risk when it came to safe sex practices, HIV infection and general STD rates.
None of the study results surprised Anita Green, a 24-year-old University of Montana graduate who participated in the survey. She's also Missoula's first openly transgender city council candidate, running against three other candidates in the nonpartisan primary for an open seat in Ward 2 on Sept. 15.
"I'm glad that something is finally getting done on a local level," Green says. "It says to me that we actually care about everyone in our community."
Green has faced her share of challenges, including a 2012 incident when a man was convicted for assaulting her after he realized she was biologically male. Her council campaign is focused on local issues she's passionate about, such as affordable housing and services for intoxicated homeless people. She's also hoping to be a role model for other young trans people.
"I want to inspire trans people to become involved in politics, and I want to inspire the transgender community to go do what they want to do with their life," she says. "I don't want somebody to feel that their transgender status is holding them back from what they want to accomplish in their life."
At UM, Sondag stresses that the transgender health assessment survey is still open and taking responses. She's also planning to show the report to health care providers around the state.
"I feel like part of my job is to create visibility and awareness, to make it safe for transgender people to let themselves be known and feel comfortable," she says. She points to the sudden emergence of prominent transgender people in pop culture, from TV shows like "Orange is the New Black" to celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner.
"They say the thing that makes people less discriminatory towards gay people is if they know someone who's gay," Sondag says. "And I think the same thing is going to happen with people who are transgender, only I think it's going to happen a lot faster."