Nearly 2 percent of high school students identify as transgender, and 35 percent of these trans students have attempted suicide in the past year, according to a study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study validates similar findings from smaller clinical and web-based studies that have found transgender students face higher rates of victimization, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts when compared to their cisgender (nontransgender) peers.
The new CDC study uses data from its biannual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) report, which asked 131,901 students in 10 states and nine different “large urban school districts” an optional question about their transgender identity.
“This study is the first time this question was asked," Caitlin Clark, a research associate at GLSEN, a national nonprofit that works to ensure schools are safe and affirming for LGBTQ students, told NBC News.
To craft the question, the CDC partnered with organizations, including GLSEN, to help to ensure that the agency asked about transgender identity in an accurate and discernible way.
“We’ve worked together to figure out the best way to assess gender identity in a way that youth understand,” Clark said.
National data on transgender youth, like the numbers released Thursday, is what many LGBTQ advocates have been waiting for.
“In order to make policy changes, we need to have hard numbers to point to,” Clark said.
Groups like The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to LGBTQ youth, agreed.
“The CDC’s findings highlight the need for even more policies to protect transgender and gender nonconforming youth,” Amit Paley, CEO of The Trevor Project, said in a statement.
Paley called the study “game-changing,” but he said he wants the question to be asked to more students in the future.
“The Trevor Project will continue to educate and encourage decision-makers across the country to adopt the gender identity and expression questions in the next round of YRBS surveys,” Paley said.
Clark said she hopes "eventually this question will no longer be optional, and it will be in the core questions of the YRBS."
To help transgender students who are at disproportionate risks of experiencing a hostile school climate, the CDC suggests fostering a safe and supportive school environment by creating and enforcing anti-bullying policies, and identifying and training supportive staff members.
“Trans youth don’t experience poorer mental health or higher suicidality because it’s something that comes with being trans,” Clark said. “Trans people have poorer mental health because they are at higher risk of victimization and discrimination.”
However, the study itself acknowledges that “because YRBS is a school-based survey, students with the highest risk for these outcomes might have dropped out.”
“It’s easy to forget about folks who aren’t part of the visible, large institutions, like schools,” said Katharine Sloss-Hartman, who works at Youth on Fire, a drop-in center for homeless and at-risk teens and young adults in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Working daily with transgender youth, Sloss-Hartman emphasized the importance of making schools trans-inclusive, but she added, “We should always hope that people have more than one support system.”
Staff members at Youth on Fire help connect trans youth with shelter, medical care, documentation that reflects their gender identity and, on the most basic level, a sense of community.
For anybody, but particularly for transgender youth, “being forgotten and not having that community can be deadly,” Sloss-Hartman said.