Transgender media visibility helps reduce transphobia, new study shows

Familiarity breeds respect.


A new study has found that seeing and learning about transgender people can reduce a person’s transphobia and, in turn, increase their support for transgender equality.

The new insights, published this month in the journal Research & Politics, come from the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ-focused think tank at UCLA Law. Researchers exposed participants to one of four different sets of information:

  1. A written vignette explaining gender identity along with pictures of gender-congruent male and female faces.
  2. A written vignette explaining gender identity along with picture of gender-incongruent male and female faces.
  3. A written vignette explaining gender identity, but with no pictures.
  4. A written vignette about Japanese economic growth.

Afterwards, participants answered questions to assess if there had been any change in their level of transphobia — their negative attitudes about gender identity and transgender people. They were also asked whether they had changed their opinions on transgender rights, including employment nondiscrimination protections for transgender people and allowing trans people to access public restrooms.

This led to a complex set of results. First, it confirmed that there is a connection between transphobia and support for transgender rights. The less transphobic a person was, the more likely they were to support trans rights. This may sound obvious, but the two are not one in the same. Indeed, previous studies have found that reductions in transphobia do not necessarily guarantee increases in support for trans rights.


But exposing participants to information and visual representations of transgender people — both gender-conforming and gender non-conforming — did seem to have an indirect effect, albeit small, on support for trans rights. This suggests that the visibility of trans people is important, whether they’re perceived as being trans or not.

“These are encouraging findings,” lead author Andrew R. 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.”

This phenomenon was seemingly demonstrated in practice last month when voters in Anchorage, Alaska successfully defeated an initiative that would have repealed nondiscrimination protections on the basis of gender identity. Opponents of the measure ran some of the most trans-inclusive ads that have been seen in any public campaign. The ads not only featured many trans people, but also directly responded to the “bathroom safety” myths conservatives were pushing. It was a very different result from a similar fight in Houston in 2015, where LGBTQ advocates lost after shying away from trans issues in their ads and other materials.

The inverse is also apparent in the way conservatives discuss trans issues. Several recent books arguing against trans equality have conspicuously avoided featuring personal stories from any trans-identified people.

This study leads to the growing body of research about how to influence support for trans rights. For example, a 2016 study found that door-to-door canvassing can have a lasting impact on how people consider trans issues.