“Would you believe me if I told you the life expectancy for transgender women of color in the United States is 31?” says Kendra Allen (at the bottom of her blog she says “*Transgender activists in the US often cite a life expectancy of early thirties to mid-thirties. I am using 31 because a local activist used this number.”
We’ve all seen that familiar statistic about “trans women” having a life expectancy of 35. It’s endlessly recycled and quoted by trans activists, presumably hoping to elicit our sympathy. Munroe Bergdorf ramped up the drama further by quoting an average life expectancy of 30 in an interview in the Guardian in September 2017, and he quoted it again in the recent, and now infamous, #GenderQuakeDebate on Channel 4. But where does this statistic come from?
As far as I can tell, this statistic originates in an article entitled “Factors associated with healthcare avoidance among transgender women in Argentina”, published in Sept 2014 in the International Journal for Equity in Health. The article’s assertion that the “life expectancy of TG women is approximately 35 years (compared to 79 years in other women)” is drawn from a 2007 publication entitled “Cumbia, copeteo y lágrimas: informe nacional sobre la situación de las travestis transexuales y transgéneros” by the late Lohana Berkins, a transsexual activist who founded Argentina’s Asociación de Lucha por la Identidad Travesti y Transexual (ALITT) in 1994 and who died at the age of 50 in February 2016.
The International Journal for Equity in Health article is less than 5000 words in length and is well worth reading in its entirety. 452 subjects were interviewed, of whom more than 60% were engaged in sex work at the time of the interview (more than 80% had been involved in sex work at any time), and of whom nearly 30% were HIV positive. A picture emerges of the very difficult lives of Argentina’s MtTs and the hazards they encounter, from “mental health problems, substance use and sexually transmitted infections” to frequent interactions with police including “arbitrary arrest and detentions, which are common among this population, have been reported as an excuse to exploit TG women for bribes or coerce them into providing sex in exchange for release from detention” to “use of non-prescribed hormones or injection of industrial silicone in non-sterilized environments”.
Is it legitimate for British MtTs like Munroe Bergdorf to quote a life expectancy statistic of 35, clearly expecting their audience to leap to the conclusion that the speakers themselves will die so young? Not really. The life of a poor, uneducated MtT in a shanty town in Buenos Aires, a person who has had to turn to prostitution or peddling drugs to make a living, and who may have resorted to having injections of industrial-grade (rather than medical-grade) silicone from an unlicensed quack in order to make himself more desirable to clients, is very different from the life of (for example) a model/DJ/columnist/activist in London.
So no, Paris and Munroe, I wouldn’t believe you if you told me that the average life expectancy of a prosperous MtT in the US or the UK was 35. I might also think that deceitfully co-opting the hard lives and early deaths of a group of people whose lives are utterly different to your own, to elicit sympathy for yourselves, is rather a low trick.