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Chicago-Area Trans Survey Could Lead To Largest Data Set On Trans People In U.S. History: ‘There’s Strength In Numbers … And Power In Data’

Led by Brave Space Alliance and Northwestern University, the Chicago Area Trans Survey wants to hear from 30,000 trans people in Cook County.

Jae Rice, a trans-masculine DJ and communications director for the Brave Space Alliance, leads protesters during the 2021 Drag March.
Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
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HYDE PARK — A trans-led team of researchers is kicking off an effort to learn more about the demographics, experiences and needs of thousands of trans people in Cook County, with the goal of using the data to affect local policy and better direct resources to the community.

The Chicago Area Trans Survey, which aims to create the largest data set on trans people in the nation’s history, began June 1 — the first day of Pride month — and continues through September 2022.

A team led by the Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and trans-led organization based in Hyde Park, will spend the next year reaching out to trans residents and building “as much community excitement and knowledge as possible” around the survey before starting data collection next summer.

Researchers want to hear from 30,000 trans Cook County residents, creating a database that can help people and organizations better advocate for their needs, said Stephanie Skora, Brave Space Alliance’s associate executive director.

“There’s strength in numbers, and there’s power in data,” Skora said. “The more people we can survey, the stronger the voice of the community becomes. We can go to our elected officials and say, ‘Look at all these people you are doing nothing for.’

“Our community needs resources, our community needs investment, and one of the only ways we can push people with money and power … is to present them with evidence that we’re actually here.”

The survey can allow researchers to move away from a historical “over-reliance on national data” and hone in on the unique needs of the local community, said Dylan Felt, research project coordinator with the EDIT Program at Northwestern University.

EDIT team members will help collect and manage the data, while ensuring its privacy and confidentiality.

“When it comes to meaningfully meeting the needs of all trans people in Chicago and Cook County, national data isn’t going to be good enough,” Felt said. The survey project aims “not just to present Chicago’s data on a national scale, but to change the way we approach trans health research nationally.”

Research on trans people “often comes from small data sets, or from massive data sets that are on the national level,” Skora said. “Really what [national data] is best for is setting policy priorities. It doesn’t really tell us anything about the lived realities or experiences of trans people in individual locations, especially major LGBTQ hubs like Chicago.”

Brave Space Alliance is a Black- and trans-led organization, while a majority of the EDIT team identifies as trans. This allows for a combination of public health expertise and lived experience not always found in studies of trans people, Felt said.

“There’s a long history of research on trans people, but it’s usually conducted by [cisgender] people who have a specific sort of fascinations or curiosities that don’t reflect the needs of trans people,” Felt said.

As trans residents face violence and oppression for simply existing, the community “for a lot of really real reasons has become very hard to locate,” Skora said. The researchers aim to address this in their approach to data collection.

Researchers won’t go door-to-door asking if county residents are trans. Instead, organizers will rely on a team of about 300 trans people to canvass the county and gather responses at events, clubs and other social activities.

With a “census-style workforce” and Brave Space Alliance’s established community ties, the researchers’ goal of 30,000 participants is realistic, Skora and Felt said.

“If you’re a trans person in Chicago, your friends, your family, your community will be the ones that are out there engaging with you and helping take this survey,” Felt said. “We know they’re there, and our approach to reaching those people is something we have a lot of confidence in.”

Methods for recording data and protecting participants’ privacy will be compiled into a manual, which will be shared with other trans-led organizations. The survey can hopefully kickstart a movement toward research created “by, for and of the community,” Skora said.

The research team will share more details on how to get involved in the weeks and months to come. For more information, follow Brave Space Alliance on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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