Daniel Lewis, Siena College – Public Attitudes Towards Transgender Rights

On Siena College Week: Could unfamiliarity with transgender people be driving negative attitudes in the U.S.?

Daniel Lewis, associate professor of political science at Siena College, examines this question.

Daniel C. Lewis earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 2008 and previously directed the University of New Orleans’ graduate programs in political science.  His work on direct democracy, minority rights, term limits, LGBT politics, the policy process, and interest groups has been published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals.  His first book, Direct Democracy and Minority Rights: A Critical Review of the Tyranny of the Majority in the American States, was published in 2013.  His next book,  The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights, co-authored with Jami K. Taylor and Donald Haider-Markel, is set to be published by the University of Michigan Press in the coming year.  Dr. Lewis teaches American politics and public policy courses with an emphasis on political institutions.

Public Attitudes Towards Transgender Rights

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Voters in Anchorage recently rejected a transgender “bathroom bill,” which would have required transgender people to use public facilities that match the sex on their birth certificates.  That vote came on the heels of President Trump’s order to bar transgender people from the military, and high-profile referendums in Houston and Fayetteville where voters rejected efforts to protect transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations. 

As a relatively new issue that directly affects only a small minority of Americans, it is not clear how the public has formed opinions on these policy proposals. 

To find out, a team of political scientists conducted three of the first national surveys on transgender rights.  Though transgender rights are often lumped in with LGBT rights, striking differences were found in attitudes toward the two groups. 

In general, support for policies that protect transgender rights is lower compared to similar policies that address gay rights.  Also, attitudes toward transgender people tend to be more influenced by partisanship and gender, and less influenced by religiosity compared to attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. 

However, the surveys also revealed that roughly a third of Americans are unable or unwilling to report a position on most policies, reflecting considerable uncertainty about the issue.  These negative and uncertain attitudes may derive simply from unfamiliarity.  In 2016, just 15 percent of Americans reported knowing someone who is transgender compared to 58 percent that know someone is gay.  This is important because knowing an LGBT person significantly increases positive attitudes toward the groups as a whole. 

Further, the study found that simply showing a picture of someone who is transgender, regardless how the person looked, increased support for transgender rights.  Importantly, this suggests that public attitudes may become more accepting in the future as Americans become more familiar with the concept of transgender identities and transgender people themselves.

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