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New Study Says Trans Media Representations Can Change the Political Landscape

A new study out of LGBTQ think tank the Williams Institute makes a compelling case for increased transgender media representations.

Merely seeing transgender people actually increases support for transgender rights, according to the study.

“These studies may suggest that that exposure may help alleviate people’s own level of anti-transgender bias,” says Andrew Flores, a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute.

Other studies have already shown that that exposure to LGB people increases support for gay rights. But little research has been done the ways those images might impact transgender people.

The study looked at more than 1,100 people. It found that simply showing people images of transgender and gender-nonconforming people reduced transphobia. That drop in transphobia translated to elevated support for trans equality.

The study revealed something else that may surprise. The attitudes of participants toward trans subjects didn’t substantially shift based on gender conformity. Both images showing people who fit gender stereotypes and people who were less gender-conforming prompted a reduction in transphobia. The study notes that the findings don’t mean that gender non-conforming people are less likely to be discriminated against in public such as in restrooms.

“These are encouraging findings,” Flores said in a statement. “As research continues to examine the effects of increased knowledge and depictions of transgender people in mass media, this study further suggests that these developments can have a positive impact on the rights and well-being of transgender people.”

The study comes at a time when transgender rights are under attack from coast to coast. In November, Massachusetts will vote on the first ever statewide referendum seeking to rollback transgender rights. Anchorage, Alaska voted down an anti-trans ballot measure in April in a tight race. Montana is also poised to put a similar anti-trans bathroom initiative on the ballot this summer.

Advocates say those measures are easier to pass at the ballot box that in state legislatures because many Americans simply don’t know trans people yet, creating a ripe climate for misinformation and fear.

According to thePew Research Center, only 30 of Americans percent know someone who is trans. But the Williams Institute study suggests that increased media representations may substitute those personal relationships in combatting transphobia at the ballot box. That could be useful information for advocates down the road.

Studies have shown that anti-discrimination protections don’t always shift social attitudes the way culture change does. In Nordic countries, women have equal access to education, low wage gaps, and substantial parental leave policies. But those countries report substantially higher rates of intimate partner violence (30 percent of women report abuse compared to 22 percent on average in the European Union). Experts attribute that disparity to sexism in the culture.


Kate Sosin 

Kate Sosin is a trans news and features reporter and former associate editor of Chicago’s Windy City Times.

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