Study: Moral beliefs about gender are linked to personal perceptions of trans attractiveness

Zinnia JonesOther individuals’ perception of a person as a given gender – that is, reading and interpreting them as being female or male – is a subjective phenomenon, with these processes and results varying among perceivers due to numerous factors such as perceptual and cognitive biases and other influences. This greatly complicates the lay notions of the concept of “passing” as a cis person of one’s gender for trans people: this is not a yes-or-no binary trait, or a single fixed value somewhere along a range. It is a set of distributions, because the phenomenon of passing or not passing as it plays out in practice essentially consists of a very large number of scattered data points across many variables.

Because these are numerous personal factors that vary among individuals and come to bear on how cis people gender or misgender us as trans people, I originally introduced this as “Trans passing tips for cis people” – literally, things that cis people themselves could be doing to increase their likelihood of perceiving us as our gender. Individual perception and assignment of a gender category, as well as individual evaluation of visual attractiveness, are affected heavily by otherwise unrelated cognitive factors.

This leads to observable bias in these gender perceptions: Newborn infants of the same size will be perceived as smaller if labeled as a girl rather than a boy; adult women are perceived as shorter than adult men of the same height; perceptions of masculinity or femininity in faces are skewed after priming with imagery of other masculine or feminine faces; assumptions about a person’s genitalia affects of other sexed or gendered body features such as hip size and hair length.

To these findings, Mao, Haupert, & Smith (2018) added a new twist: They asked a group of cisgender heterosexual adults to rate the attractiveness of a set of images of other-sex faces – accompanied with any of four labels indicating cisgender, transgender, or nonbinary identity.

Male participants saw and rated all 48 female photos, while female participants saw and rated all 48 male photos. Each photo was presented as an online dating profile, together with a gender identity label (cisgender woman/man for the female/male photos, respectively, nonbinary, trans man, or trans woman) and a racial label (Asian, Black, Latinx, or White). The race label always matched the race of the face, while the gender label was counterbalanced such that each photo was presented an approximately equal number of times with each label (for different participants).

What the authors found was that images indicated to be transgender or nonbinary people were consistently rated as lower in visual attractiveness than those indicated to be of a cisgender person – even though they were the same images of the same people. In other words: individuals will often report that a cisgender person appears less visually attractive if they are told that cis person is trans.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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