(BLOOMINGTON) – In the first national public opinion survey of its kind, sociologists from Indiana University, the University of Maryland and Ohio State University found evidence that undermines some of the primary arguments used to restrict the rights of transgender Americans.
The article, “Americans’ Perceptions of Transgender People’s Sex: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment,” which appears in the American Sociological Association’s journal Socius, compiles the results of a survey of nearly 4,000 Americans. The authors randomly assigned respondents descriptions of transgender people with varying self-identified gender, age and gender conformity in physical appearance and asked the respondents to classify that person’s sex.
The study found that Americans are more likely to see transgender people as their birth sex than as the gender they identify as. However, this pattern is reversed if they “pass” as the gender they identify as. Other key findings include that contact with anyone who is transgender has a liberalizing effect on views regarding transgender people, divides on the issue exist along sociodemographic lines and patterns regarding attitudes toward transgender people are reminiscent of the attitudes regarding same-sex marriage from the early 2000s.
Though a ban on transgender service members in the military and bills that attempt to deny transgender individuals access to bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity have thrust the issue of transgender rights to the forefront of public debate in the last few years, very little research exists on public opinion surrounding the issue.
“There is a huge amount of publicity and attention being given to the issues of transgender Americans, with strong feelings on both sides,” said Brian Powell, James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at IU. “But for the most part, we don’t really know what the public thinks.”
Powell, along with Long Doan, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and Natasha Quadlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, draws the following lessons:
Biology vs. appearance. One argument fueling the restriction of transgender rights is that identity should be based on biology and not an individual’s physical appearance. But according to the study, physical appearances have a greater influence than biological birth sex in the identification of a transgender individual’s sex.
While 53 percent of respondents identified transgender individuals as the biological sex assigned to them at birth, that number dropped to 41 percent when the individual’s appearance conformed to the gender with which they identify.
“These results can have both positive and negative implications for transgender rights,” Powell said. “On one hand, it shows that Americans actually are in a position to change their views about transgender people, but on the other hand it creates an incredible burden on transgender people to feel that they have to pass.”
Americans assume non-passing appearance. When given no information about a transgender individual’s appearance, most people surveyed assumed they did not pass as the gender they identify as and have an appearance that conforms more closely with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Powell said this assumption could be the result of a limited range of representation of transgender people in popular media.
Age is just a number. Earlier this year, a judge in Ohio denied a 15-year-old a legal name change, even though the teen’s parents, therapist and doctor specializing in treating transgender children stood behind the change. The judge claimed the teen lacked the maturity and knowledge to make the decision, a common argument used to delegitimize teenagers’ transgender identities.
But according to this study, Americans consider transgender people’s age more or less irrelevant to perceptions of their sex.
Sociodemographic information is significant. According to the study, women, college graduates, non-evangelicals and Clinton voters are much more likely than men, people without a college degree, evangelicals and Trump voters to take a more inclusive view regarding transgender people.
“So many of the arguments used in these bathroom bills cite the protection of women and children, but women are much more open to transgender people than men are, and being a parent has no apparent effect on opinion, either,” Powell said.
While many demographic factors were indicators for how respondents viewed transgender people, the study did not find a correlation between race and perceptions.
Personal contact counts. Less than one-third of Americans report knowing someone who is transgender, a similar figure to the number of Americans who reported knowing a gay person 20 years ago, and like opinions on same-sex marriage, those who know someone who is transgender are more likely to have liberal views of transgender people.
According to Powell, 90 percent of respondents said that they know someone who is gay, and he anticipates that the number of Americans who know someone who is transgender will increase quickly and drastically in the coming years.
Similar to same-sex marriage. The results of this public opinion survey mirror closely the results of similar public opinion surveys from the early 2000s surrounding same-sex marriage. Those attitudes liberalized so quickly that twice as many Americans now support same-sex marriage as oppose it, according to Powell.
He said public opinion on social issues generally changes slowly over generations, but if the opinion about transgender people continues to follow the same trajectory as same-sex marriage, it too could change drastically in the coming decades.
“Issues of civil rights for transgender people and same-sex couples in many cases correspond with the American ideology of individualism,” Powell said. “Most Americans, regardless of religion or political affiliation, believe people have the right to be who they are, especially if they’re causing no harm to others.”
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