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Transgender College Freshmen Drink and Black Out More Than Other Students

A recent study from Duke University found that among other motivations, many trans students said they drink "to feel happy."

by Diana Tourjée
Mar 23 2017, 5:05pm

Photo by Milles Studio via Stocksy

A new study has found that transgender college freshman are more likely to abuse alcohol and suffer from alcohol-induced blackouts than their cisgender counterparts. The data may not be entirely surprising—we already know that the transgender population experiences disproportionate substance abuse issues when compared to the general population. Nonetheless, it highlights the ongoing struggle that young trans people face in today's America at a critical and stressful time in the transgender civil rights movement.

The current research was performed at the Duke University Medical Center. They surveyed 422,906 college students—989 self-identified as transgender, representing 0.2 percent of the sample group. The researchers make it clear in their work that transgender people experience significant discrimination in society. Duke is in North Carolina, where the infamous anti-trans "bathroom bill" HB2 was passed, lending greater weight to their work. Anti-transgender legislation "illustrates the conflicts, stressors, and concerns regarding diminished safety historically experienced by the transgender community," the authors note.

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They define two measures of concern: an alcohol related blackout (ARB) and an alcohol related consequence (ARC). In the study, it was found that transgender students not only drank more frequently, and in greater quantities, than their cisgender classmates—they also experience both increased numbers of ARB's and ARC's. Thirty-six percent of trans students, compared with 25 percent of cis students, reported blacking out due to alcohol consumption.

Harassment and bullying may be common at schools, the researchers write, explaining that this compounds the problem facing trans students. Such discrimination may be prevalent, subsequently "curtailing fundamental enthusiasm for college matriculation." Young trans people then, are on their own: "Many colleges are ill-equipped to accommodate the needs of this newly visible cohort."

Dr. Scott Swartzwelder, one of the study's authors, says that they didn't set out to survey trans students. "We actually stumbled into it," he said in an interview with Broadly. Swartzwelder's team had been looking generally at the issue of blackouts at college, and in the midst of that research they realized that transgender students displayed a worrying distinction from their peers. Across their findings, transgender women displayed higher levels of reported alcohol consumption and associated problems than transgender men.

Not only do trans students both drink more and suffer greater negative consequences due to their alcohol consumption than other students, Swartzwelder explained: They also were more likely to report using alcohol specifically to self-medicate their feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. Some reported drinking in order "to feel happy." Further research is needed to truly understand why these distinctions exist, according to Swartzwelder. However, we already know that trans people experience all sorts of disproportionate social and health issues.

"Transgender students represent a vulnerable population with respect to alcohol abuse and its negative consequences," Swartzwelder said, adding that schools and medical providers have a responsibility to help curtail this issue. He sees this as part of the problem overall, and believes that ignorance around trans students helps to create statistics like these.

Read more: The Deadly Reality for Transgender Students Facing Discrimination in School

Over the next several years, Swartzwelder intends to track the trans student population using a database of "millions and millions" of college students that he has access to. His hope is that there will be a demonstrable shift in the statistics, that trans students in future years will not be suffering to the degree they do today. "Transgender people are widely misunderstood in this society," Swartzwelder said.

Any research into transgender people can be helpful in an effort toward equality. "Regardless of what we're studying about transgender people, if we know more about them, then we can come to view them from a position that is informed by facts rather than fear," he added.

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