Following the aggressive and unprecedented wave of anti-trans legislation in 2021, seven US states introduced measures that would restrict the rights of transgender and non-binary youth in the first week of January alone. In related news, hate crimes against the trans community have been also rising. What is happening here? Why are so many people so annoyed by other people’s gender expression? Perhaps there is an inevitable pace to social progress, and with increased visibility comes increased and often ugly outcry. It doesn’t make anything any less painful, dangerous or alarming. It just requires us to look for reasons, so we can start finding solutions.
Anti-trans attitudes do not flourish in a vacuum. They thrive in exactly the political conditions we live in right now. In 2008, a study of undergraduate students published in the research journal Sex Roles found that “for both genders, transphobia and homophobia were strongly correlated with each other.” and with right-wing authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism and hostile sexism.”
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Research in the UK and Belgium in 2017 found similar results and even deeper motivation. “Perceiving the ambiguity surrounding indeterminate gender identities associated with transgender people can be particularly disturbing for those who generally dislike ambiguity and have a preference for order and predictability, i.e., for people who score higher on Need to close (NFC),” the study, published in Sex Roles, noted. After testing the correlation between NFC and transphobia, the authors found that “NFC was significantly associated with transphobia through both stronger adherence to social conventions and obedience to authorities (i.e. say right-wing authoritarianism).”
And now here we are, living with what President Biden recently called “a dagger in the throat of America and American democracy.” Is it any wonder that the Venn diagram of people who love authoritarianism and fear trans people is an almost perfect circle, or that it’s filled with all the usual suspects? Last year, Marjorie Taylor Greene drew attention both for hanging an anti-trans sign outside her office opposite that of a fellow rep with a transgender daughter, and for saying that men and women trans women “destroy God’s creation”. And in October, after Dr. Rachel Levine made history with her appointment as a four-star Admiral, Tucker Carlson popped a joint, stating on his show that “the Biden administration has declared that a biological man who wears a robe is now a female admiral…. You have to wonder how long it will be before Joe Biden nominates his horse for the Supreme Court .” I didn’t even know Joe Biden had a horse.
It’s no surprise that extreme trolls take extreme positions. But there are other contributing factors to transphobia that affect us all, because it’s not just an individual problem. As a professor of psychology at Clark University Abbie Goldberg, who recently published “How to Tell if Your College is Trans-Inclusive” in The Conversation, says, “We live in a society that is inherently transphobic by virtue of being cisgender being positioned as normative and trans/all other gender identities as other (and therefore inferior to/devalued/deviant/etc .); this is reinforced by the medical community, school systems, etc.”
“In this context,” she says, “it’s hard for people in general not to be shaped by transphobic assumptions and ideas (the idea that trans is ‘fake’).” And people who place a high value on binary gender identities may hold those assumptions more firmly. A 2018 study from St. Louis University found a correlation between more fixed gender ideals and a perception of a “threat of distinctiveness” around trans people.
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Most of us can be shaped by our assumptions without becoming immutable within them. Some prefer to double. There was a time when JK Rowling was just the author of one of the most beloved book series ever written, and not also the person who fears sharing a bathroom with “any man who believes or feels that ‘he is a woman’. There was a time when a Dave Chapelle stand-up special didn’t inspire a walkout on the network that aired it. When Graham Linehan was just the guy who created “The IT Crowd”. In recent years, however, they’ve all had to have their fan ratings and entire Wikipedia pages updated, thanks to their hostile comments about trans people. Linehan has pretty much become a full-time transphobe now, in that in 2020 he was banned from twitter for comments like “Men are not women.” (May be we should have seen that one future.)
Karen Tibbals, author of “Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility Across Political Divide”, says that “transphobia is one of the manifestations of the conservative interpretation of the sacred. It goes against what they believe to be true about the way the world is supposed to be. Because it refers to a deep value, it is difficult to overcome. It is an application of a theory in psychology called Moral Foundation Theory.
You can see what she is talking about when you examine one of the pillars of moral foundation theory – the concept of fairness. “You have to see it from a woman’s perspective,” Dave Chapelle says in “The Closer.” Look at it like this, Caitlyn Jenner was voted Woman of the Year in her first year as a woman. Isn’t that something? I’d be crazy as shit if I was a woman.” The joke to Chapelle is the perception injustice of all that. And Joe Rogan, who frequently treats the trans community as a favored punchline, retreated into his own sense of victimhood and bias on his show last summer which “The most vicious shit comes from transgender people or gay people.”
There is no easy or surefire way to change anyone’s mind, just as there is no single reason why someone has bigoted or simply ignorant views. The optimists among us must continue to look for signs of progress as well as setbacks, and appeal to reason in those who possess it. Karen Tibbals says: “One way to overcome it is to access other deeply held beliefs. An example of how to do this might be to say something like, ‘Shouldn’t trans people also work hard to realizing the american dream?'” Or maybe, shouldn’t a trans woman also be woman of the year?
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