Transgenders comprise 0.5% of the American population. The Trump administration in late February 2017 withdrew Obama
administration federal protections for transgender students that would
allow them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
Transgender activists protested outside the White House. With two
presidents essentially taking opposite stances on the issue within a
year, it is obvious how polarizing transgender rights policies have
become, said a University of Kansas researcher of partisanship and
‘People are more liberal on transgender civil rights issues, but have a divided opinion on policies that relate to the body and gender roles.’
"For as hotly contested as transgender rights are for some people,
we don't know a lot about how Americans think about this set of issues
and what shapes those attitudes," said Patrick Miller, a KU assistant
professor of political science. "We don't have a very rich understanding
about how average people think about transgender rights."
Miller was lead author of a new study measuring attitudes on
transgender rights issues that found significant support for protection
of general civil rights for transgender people - like equal access to
military service, employment and housing non-discrimination laws.
However, public opinion is more divided on policies that relate to the
body and gender roles, such as people being able to choose which public
restroom to use based on one's gender identity or the ability to change
one's sex on a state-issued driver's license.
"On traditional civil rights debates, people are more liberal on
those issues when it comes to transgender people," Miller said. "On
policies that are more body-related, such as physical changes and
physical presentation of gender, all of which are more specific to the
transgender community, more Americans seem to differentiate those and
can be more conservative on those questions. People don't see all
transgender rights questions equally."
The journal Politics, Groups, and Identities
published the study online. The article, "Transgender politics as body
politics: effects of disgust sensitivity and authoritarianism on
transgender rights attitudes," includes Don Haider-Markel, chair and
professor of the KU Department of Political Science, as a co-author, and
the research team has completed a series of studies on transgender
politics that will appear in a variety of journals this year.
Miller said regarding body-centric policy questions - such as
questions about public restroom choice, or whether Medicare or health
insurance companies should be required to pay for gender reassignment
surgery or hormone therapy - those most opposed are people who report
having a higher tendency to feel disgusted in general, though not
specifically about transgender people. Also, more opposed are those who
score higher on a psychological trait called "authoritarianism," which
represents a higher need for order or to see the world in
black-and-white terms. These individuals may place greater value on
conforming to traditional social norms.
The researchers found those traits outweighed factors such as
partisanship, ideology, and demographics in shaping attitudes about
transgender rights, he said.
The findings would make sense given that much of the controversy
surrounding debates at the federal level and in state legislatures have
centered around transgender rights policies such as public restrooms,
identity on driver's licenses, and coverage for medical procedures.
"For many Americans, when they think about transgender people, their
mind is on the body and how that defines transgender people in some
ways, and maybe how that makes them different in some ways," Miller
The study could provide insight for transgender rights advocates.
Oftentimes it is communicated that it is taboo or offensive to discuss
issues surrounding the body and transgender people, such as how someone
dresses or how someone is undergoing medical transformations to their
"Certainly, I understand people have the attitude that it is 'none
of your business' or 'why would you ask that?'" Miller said. "But I
think the implication of our research is that the evidence points toward
the body being a major consideration that people have. So, if you want
to lead society in a more accepting direction on things like the
bathroom debate, you might be doing yourself more harm than good to not
engage with questions about the body and to shut down those questions
It is likely most people won't
have direct contact with a transgender person, he said. However, as mass
media news coverage and depictions of characters in popular culture
becomes more common, that could influence how people think about the
minority group. That also could spur more people to become curious and
ask more questions about the transgender community, spurring some of
those conversations that might be seen as taboo, he said.
"That's an area where engagement may be uncomfortable for some
people," Miller said, "but it could be beneficial if you want people to
be more sympathetic and understanding of the experiences that
transgender people have."