If you looked at things from a very zoomed-out, pop-culture-heavy angle, you’d think that we were marching steadily toward equality for transgender people. Trans people are as culturally visible as they have ever been, after all — think Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox and Transparency (which stars a cis man playing a trans woman, but also has plenty of trans actors and actresses and crew members). More people than ever before know what it means to be transgender, and recognize that trans people deserve the same rights as everyone else.
But to take that view is to miss out on a pretty nasty backlash. All around the country, states have been proposing and passing legislation seemingly designed to do little more than humiliate trans people and make their lives difficult, usually by banning them from using the bathrooms that line up with their gender identities.
What accounts for these attitudes? During the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia last week, a team from the University of Delaware presented some new survey findings about attitudes toward transgender people that can help explain what’s going on — and which point to an interesting new way to better understand this issue.
At the moment, point out the authors, who are led by the political scientists Philip Edward Jones, the limited data we have suggest that trans people are treated pretty terribly: “Majorities of respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (Haas, Rodgers, & Herman, 2014) reported being rejected by family (57%), being discriminated against or harassed at work (50-59%), suffering physical or sexual violence at work (64-65%) or school (63-78%) and having experienced homelessness (69%). 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide at some point in their life, far higher than the 5% of the overall U.S. population who report the same.”
Understanding the roots of this prejudice, then, is an important goal, so the researchers conducted a survey in which they called a representative sample of 901 Americans and asked them not only about their beliefs on trans people, but a variety of other questions about their political beliefs and personalities — the goal being to correlate these other characteristics with support, or lack thereof, for trans people.
Overall, most people supported trans rights in the abstract. More than 70 percent of the respondents were in favor of school and workplace protections and a bit over 50 percent were in favor of gender-neutral bathrooms. And only small-ish minorities of respondents said that trans people were less trustworthy (15.7 percent), moral (24.8 percent), or happy (24.8 percent) than “most people,” though respondents did tend to rate “most people” as a bit more trustworthy, moral, and happy overall.
One interesting concept the researchers touched on in their survey was respondents’ levels of so-called “need for cognitive closure.” The higher your NCC, the less comfortable you are with ambiguity. So as co-author Dannagal Young put it to me in an email, “The phenomenon of transgender people (and hence rights) ought to be problematic for individuals uncomfortable with ambiguous or uncertain situations or constructs.” Sure enough, the researchers found that need for closure predicted reduced support for trans rights. It wasn’t a huge effect, but it was statistically significant, and was twice as strong a predictor as party identification, and 2/3 percent as strong as religiosity — meaning need for cognitive closure explained the differences in support for trans rights even when the researchers controlled for these, and other, variables as well.
Interestingly, intergroup contact with trans people didn’t predict support for trans rights at all — but Young said that “only 11 percent of our sample had actually reported such contact,” which would make that effect statistically tough to pick up, even if it were there. That’s something that will likely change in the long run: As more and more trans people come out, it’ll be increasingly difficult for their friends and family members to support laws designed to marginalize them. But at the moment, most people don’t know anyone who is trans.
So if very few people have a trans friend or family member, what can account for the fact that overall numbers here aren’t that bad? “The data do reveal a relationship between television viewing and views of trans people,” said Jones, “suggesting parasocial contact through media — as opposed to intergroup contact (in real life) could be influencing these more positive views. Given the relatively small numbers of trans individuals in the population, it’s possible that moving forward, parasocial contact with positive portrayals may have a larger impact on opinions on this issue than will intergroup contact.”
Ideally, this will create a cascade effect that will make it easier for non-famous trans people to come out to their friends and family. In the meantime, though, it’s interesting to think about the role pop culture is having in normalizing and demystifying trans issues for millions of Americans.