Public attitudes toward transgender issues, such as bathroom access, can change depending on how the issues are framed.
Most gender equality efforts focus on cisgender women, defined as women whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. However, this overlooks the serious vulnerabilities faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. Transgender individuals have a gender identity that differs from their sex assigned at birth, and gender non-conforming individuals do not meet the stereotypes for how they should behave or look based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals diverge from the social expectations linked to the sex they were assigned at birth. Therefore, these individuals experience a range of consequences due to a lack of societal understanding about their identities. For example, in the United States, nearly two-thirds of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have experienced a major discriminatory event such as job loss, eviction, or assault.
In recent years, public debate has grown especially heated over transgender access to bathrooms designated for women or for men (known as “transgender bathroom access”). Past psychological research shows that public attitudes towards controversial issues may hinge both on how these issues are presented to society (“framing”) and how they intersect with social group identities (“identity priming”). Framing can bring different concerns to the fore. In this case, safety for transgender kids at risk of bullying is an example of a positive framing of transgender bathroom access, whereas the threat of “predators,” usually cisgender men who might pose as transgender in order to prey on women, is a negative framing condition. Identity priming can also bring into consideration the public’s social group identities, or a sense of “us” and “them.” For instance, the predatory men frame suggests to a predominantly cisgender public that an untrustworthy “them” may open “us” up to new threats.
Using a pilot experiment for a broader research program on public attitudes towards transgender people and rights, the authors examine how varying frames and identity primes affect support for transgender bathroom access.
While online survey respondents mostly supported transgender bathroom access, framing the issue as a potential threat to cisgender women and children significantly decreased support, while framing the issue positively had no effect.
- When respondents in the control group viewed a neutral illustrated message about bathroom paper towel usage, 69.3% supported transgender bathroom access rights.
- When respondents viewed an illustrated negative message opposing transgender bathroom access on the basis of safety—specifically, protecting children in the women’s bathroom against “men who say they are transgender”—50.6% supported transgender bathroom access rights, significantly lower than the control group of 69.3%.
- No other framing produced significant effects:
- When respondents viewed a positive illustrated message supporting transgender bathroom access on the basis of safety for transgender youth, 67.5% supported transgender bathroom access rights, similar to the control group.
- When respondents viewed a positive illustrated message supporting transgender bathroom access on the basis of everyone’s freedom to choose a preferred bathroom, 64.0% supported transgender bathroom access rights, similar to the control group.
- When respondents viewed a negative illustrated message supporting transgender bathroom access on the basis of everyone’s freedom to choose a preferred bathroom, 59.2% supported transgender bathroom access rights, similar to the control group.
These findings suggest that attitudes toward transgender people and rights can be influenced by the context in which issues are presented. In particular, support for transgender rights decreases when cisgender identities are primed, transgender identities are framed as questionable or invalid, and transgender women are framed as a threat to cisgender women and children. The authors’ ongoing research seeks to better understand differential attitudes toward transgender women and transgender men, and to identify positive frames that can promote gender equality for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.
The study included 388 adults through Amazon Mechanical Turk, after excluding 55 respondents with a transgender or gender non-conforming family member or close friend. Participants were randomly assigned to view storyboards and text about bathroom use, with one of five messages: (A) a message about safety supporting transgender bathroom use, (B) a message about safety opposing transgender bathroom use, (C) a message about freedom supporting transgender bathroom use, (D) a message about freedom opposing transgender bathroom use, or (E) a control message encouraging reduced use of paper towels. Participants then responded to questions about their views of transgender bathroom access.
MLA: Harrison, Brian F., and Melissa R. Michelson. “Using Experiments to Understand Public Attitudes Towards Transgender Rights.” Politics, Groups, and Identities, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 152-160.
APA: Harrison, B.F., & Michelson, M.R. (2017). Using experiments to understand public attitudes towards transgender rights. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 5(1), 152-160.
Chicago: Harrison, Brian F., and Melissa R. Michelson. “Using Experiments to Understand Public Attitudes Towards Transgender Rights.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 5, no. 1 (2017): 152-160.