Many countries, especially the U.S., are facing a crisis of anti-trans rhetoric and legislation. Despite the trans community often being dragged into the center of these so-called “culture wars,” very little data exists about the actual lived experiences of trans people. What were their childhoods like? How many take hormones or get surgery to help with their transition? Without information like this, the real lives of trans people are left to be drowned out by misinformation and vitriol.
To address this gap and capture what it’s truly like to be trans in the U.S. today, The Washington Post teamed up with KFF (formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation) to poll 515 transgender adults about their lives, including childhood experiences, education, and healthcare access. Of dozens of Post-KFF surveys, this is the first to focus on trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. The poll also represents one of the largest random samples of U.S. trans adults to date.
The full survey report is rich with statistics and figures about the lived experiences of trans adults in the U.S.; for example, while 57 percent of trans people started using a different name as part of their transition, only 24 percent have legally changed their name on official documents such as passports. And gender-affirming surgeries are much less common than the media circus surrounding them suggests—just 16 percent of trans people reported having surgery to change their physical appearance.
But numbers like these carry only a little meaning until they are grounded in human stories and interpretation. Translating data, using it to convey the depth and range of human experiences and emotions—that’s the work of a journalist.
With the help of the Post’s polling analyst Emily Guskin and polling director Scott Clement, Casey Parks, Portland, Oregon–based social-issues reporter for the Post, turned this mountain of survey results into a nuanced yet streamlined March 2023 story. Parks seamlessly integrates data points with the personal experiences of trans adults, painting a stunningly full picture of life as a trans person in the U.S. today. From formative childhood events to the joys of transition and employment hardships, being trans is not a one-size-fits-all experience, Parks reports. Parks and Guskin spoke with Darren Incorvaia about working together to craft the story, how to interpret survey results for readers, and how to weave personal stories and data together. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Why did The Washington Post decide to focus on trans people in this poll?
Guskin: Every year, the Post gets together with KFF, and we do surveys of hard-to-reach populations and other people whom general polls are not necessarily reaching. We talk to reporters and editors in the newsroom to figure out what we want to know and what will make the most interesting story. For 2022, we decided to poll trans people in America. Something we do differently when it comes to polling like this is taking the questionnaires and distributing them to members of the community, to see if there was anything in it that was insensitive.
How did you work on this story together?
Parks: This is not the kind of story that I normally write. I normally go watch people live their lives and write it down. This is much harder to do for me. Initially, I met with Scott and Emily, and they gave me two big documents: one that was 40 pages long of data points, and one that was three pages of things that they found really interesting. When I went and looked at the 40-page one, there were things that I thought were interesting that they hadn’t flagged, but from there, it was kind of like, take this and make this into something readable.
[Scott and Emily] went through several drafts of mine. I made an outline first of what I’m interested in, and they went through and made comments on that. We had a Google Doc and we were going back and forth—there’s three bylines for a reason.
As you looked through the survey results, how did you decide what to pull into your story?
Parks: Initially, I was kind of sweating. Some of it just wasn’t as new to me as it would be to most of our readers, because I have a lot of trans people in my life and have covered these issues for a long time. So initially, I was like, “Trans people are happier after they transition. Okay. Why is that news?” But it turns out, from the responses I’ve gotten, people are so happy that we put that on the record. That has been actually transformational for people in a way that I really underestimated.
There are two stats that I was shocked by, and I put them both up top. One I could not believe [was] that 62 percent of trans people identified as non-binary. That number just seemed huge to me. That’s six out of 10 trans people—that’s a lot. Then when I thought about it, I was like, “Oh, yeah, almost all the trans people in my life are non-binary.” But I think people think of it as a relatively new term.
The other one is the polling that we did on medical transitions. I knew that most trans people do not have surgery. But our poll also found that only 31 percent of trans people take hormones or puberty blockers. That was really shocking to me. I would have thought that it would be like 80 percent or something. [Trans] people do understand that medical interventions are a big deal. They’re expensive, and I don’t think people go into them capriciously. The numbers really show that.
How did you decide which sources to include in the story?
Parks: Scott and Emily gave me a diverse list of poll respondents who had said they’d be willing to talk. But then, because polls take a long time, there were several months that passed in between. When I reached out to them, [for some reason] anyone who was not white said no to me. And I think we all as a team agreed: We did not want to do a [story] that was just white people. So that took more concerted digging on my behalf to find people from other backgrounds.
Guskin: I think the beauty of doing a representative poll is that anyone that a reporter talks to is represented, even if they didn’t participate in the poll, because we had a random sample of people. So their experiences will speak to what we found in the poll for most cases.
What advice do you have for interviewing vulnerable populations like the trans community?
Parks: When you’re talking with vulnerable populations, sometimes [interviewing over] the phone is an advantage, because they’re not as anxious about performing. When I go do narrative reporting, you almost have to write the first day off, because people are showing you a version of themselves that they think is going to be put down in this amazing way. They’re telling you well-worn stories; they don’t relax into themselves. On the phone, I find people are more real and more vulnerable—it’s almost like talking to a diary or something. I obviously love doing in-person reporting; it’s super fun. But sometimes, for something like this, it has to be on the phone.
Your story seamlessly blends together data with personal narratives. How did you glean deeper meaning from the data and connect that with your sources’ experiences?
Guskin: I like to say that my job is translating data into English; I know not everyone keeps a TI-83 [graphing calculator] on their desk. I want anybody reading our journalism to understand the data, and the best way to do that, especially for surveys like this, is to have that human experience there. Combining them all—the photography and the personal interviews and the data—is really powerful and helps communicate to readers in a way that just one of those things alone wouldn’t do.
Parks: It turns out most of the things people said [in interviews] were borne out by the poll, so it was pretty easy to line up the numbers with what people said. Having the right people in those [data] translator jobs is huge, because they don’t talk like robots. It made my job easy from the get-go. Sometimes it is just those informal talks where you’re trying to tell another person what something means.
I do this with other stories as well. If I’m stumped, I’ll ask someone: Can I tell you what the story is about? And I’ll record myself. Or I’ll text someone: “Hey, I hate this story now, I just want to tell you why I thought it was interesting two months ago.” You get in your formal brain when you’re trying to write, [but] at the end of the day, you’re just trying to tell somebody something, not write a dissertation.
As you translated data into a narrative story, how did you preserve accuracy?
Parks: In all my writing, I try to use as few numbers as possible. So I might say, like, “one in five” rather than “20 percent.” I learned that from Katherine Boo, who is my favorite journalist. Her magazine stories are very rooted, and she does a ton of research. But when you’re reading it, you never feel like you’re reading a scientific study. And initially, I didn’t know that she had read any studies at all. Once I started to learn how to read studies, I’d be like, “Oh, my God, she’s looking at an academic journal. That’s how she knows all this.” It’s really hard to write that without making your reader feel like they’re in a textbook.
Guskin: We’re real big sticklers, one in five has to be 20 percent. If it’s 21 percent, we’ll say “about one in five.” I like using ratios a lot too. And [Parks] uses them a lot in [her] writing. And I think that makes it easier for a reader to come to than just being thrown a bunch of percentages.
What has the response to your story been like?
Parks: I got a higher-than-usual volume of supportive emails. I got a lot of emails from older people who are still in the closet, who felt very heartened by it, and then also from parents who felt some hope from it. It is helpful sometimes to have that positivity. [The story] happened to come out in a very tense time for trans people in terms of legislation and coverage other places have done, and I think it just felt very affirming to a lot of people. I saw that it got shared a lot by people who I don’t think are normal Post readers. And actually, one cool thing is that the Post made it all paywall free, so we were able to reach people that way as well.
Guskin: I had a professor of mine from undergrad email me; the professor has a kid who’s trans, and reading the article gave him hope for his kid’s future. I cried when I got that email, because I don’t think a lot of journalism can give parents hope for their children. And the fact that we were able to do that is pretty impressive. Getting feedback like that from supportive parents of kids who are trans and being able to provide that [hope] was meaningful for me.
Darren Incorvaia is a journalist who writes about the natural world. He earned a PhD in ecology, evolution, and behavior from Michigan State University in 2021, with a dissertation on bumblebee behavior. He has since written freelance stories for Discover Magazine, Science News, Scientific American, and The New York Times, mostly about exciting new discoveries in the animal kingdom. Darren is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Follow him on Twitter @MegaDarren.