What is transphobia made of? Perception of deception predicts transphobic prejudice

Zinnia JonesTo the frustration of trans people, allies, and other generally reasonable individuals, transphobic attitudes continue to exist and inflict harm on innocent people. We know all too well that far too many people are transphobic – but why? What motivates this hostility, and in what beliefs and attitudes is it rooted? Previous studies have identified correlations between negative attitudes toward trans people and endorsement of homophobia, benevolent sexism, religious fundamentalism, discomfort with sexuality generally, and a lack of any personal contact with trans people (Rye, Merritt, & Straatsma, 2019).

These associations between transphobia and attitudes in other areas of life are well-established. But what is it about trans people specifically that inspires disapproval? A recent study looked more closely at one manifestation of prejudice, distrust toward trans people, as well as what beliefs are linked to this mistrust and what separates this antipathy from disapproval of other sexual minorities.

Totton & Rios (2019) note that distrust toward other social groups is a frequent feature of general disapproval of those groups:

Distrust can be particularly detrimental to outgroup attitudes (Cottrell, Neuberg, & Li, 2007), and outgroups perceived as uncategorizable, ambiguous, or unpredictable elicit greater distrust and prejudice (see Burke et al., 2017; Cook, Cottrell, & Webster, 2015; Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011; Hertlein, Hartwell, & Munns, 2016). For instance, atheists are rated as less trustworthy than many other target groups, including gay men, because their lack of belief in God renders them “moral wildcards” whose actions cannot be predicted. Similarly, bisexual individuals often face greater prejudice than lesbians or gay men (Burke et al., 2017; Hertlein et al., 2016), due to perceptions that bisexual individuals are an ambiguous middleground between straight and gay, are confused about their identity, and need to “pick a side” (Burke & LaFrance, 2016).

Based on these previous findings regarding distrust, the authors conducted a series of studies surveying cisgender heterosexuals on “their overall feelings of warmth toward and perceived trustworthiness of several groups, including transgender individuals, bisexual individuals, gay men, and lesbians”, including “questions about perceived identity-confusion and deception”. In the first study, participants’ attitudes toward trans people were compared with their attitudes toward gay (cisgender) men; the participants reported significantly greater distrust of trans people, significantly greater belief that trans people are “confused about their identity”, and significantly greater belief that trans people are “deceptive toward others about their identity”. The authors found that “deception but not identity-confusion significantly mediated the relationship between distrust and prejudice toward transgender targets.”

The second study posed similar questions, but rather than referring to trans people generally, participants were surveyed on their beliefs regarding trans women, trans men, and gay men. In this study, respondents expressed significantly greater prejudice toward trans women than either trans men or gay men, and only trans women were rated as significantly higher in identity confusion than gay men. Both trans women and trans men were seen as significantly more deceptive than gay men. The authors concluded that in this study, “deception was the better predictor of both distrust and prejudice when compared to identity-confusion”.

Finally, in a third study participants’ attitudes toward trans people were compared to their attitudes toward gay (cisgender) men, lesbian (cisgender) women, and bisexual (cisgender) people. While no difference was found between levels of prejudice toward trans people and bisexual people, significantly more prejudice was exhibited toward trans people compared to gay men. Additionally, there was no difference in distrust of trans people and bisexual people, but trans people were significantly more distrusted than gay men. Perceptions of identity confusion in trans people also showed no difference compared to bisexuals, but trans people were rated as significantly higher in identity confusion than gays and lesbians. Trans people were also rated as significantly greater in deception compared to all of these groups. Again, researchers found that the belief in deception mediated prejudice.

These findings help to reveal not only a source of anti-transgender attitudes, but a potential target for encouraging the public’s acceptance of trans people. Unlike cisgender gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, who we are is more likely to be seen as inauthentic and not truly reflective of our genuine selves, and working to change this perception could make a meaningful difference in shifting societal attitudes toward support of trans people. If the public can understand that coming out and transitioning is actually the truest expression of who we are, they’re that much closer to being willing to help us rather than hinder us in living our lives with authenticity.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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