Transphobic and homophobic attitudes are so highly correlated they might be the same thing

Zinnia JonesWithin the baseless anti-trans claim that gender-affirming care for trans youth constitutes a form of anti-gay “conversion therapy” applied to these children, one key component is the assertion that their parents would prefer to have a child who isn’t attracted to the same sex, and so they would instead rather have a trans child who is heterosexual. The extent to which this claim has penetrated anti-trans discourse is remarkable given how it falls flat at almost every point. Affirming treatment, such as with puberty blockers, does not appear to induce any change in an adolescent’s gender identity. A stance of rejection does not cause a trans person to stop being trans, and such an approach is an attempt at conversion therapy meant to impose change on a person’s gender identity. And same-sex attraction is vastly more common among trans people than it is among cis people – being trans certainly does not reduce the likelihood that a person experiences attraction to the same sex.

But the ascribed motivation behind the alleged attempt by anti-gay, pro-trans parents to change their child’s gender identity is itself implausible from the very outset. Why? Simultaneous anti-gay and pro-trans attitudes are unlikely to be held by an individual – this supposed association has been posited with no evidence for it. And there’s much evidence against it.

Norton & Herek (2013) previously examined U.S. heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, as well as their attitudes toward trans people, and studied whether these are correlated. Were those with more anti-gay prejudice also more accepting of trans people, as the “conversion therapy” argument posits? In fact, the opposite was found: Those with negative attitudes against queer people tended to hold negative attitudes toward trans people as well, with a statistically significant correlation.

U.S. heterosexual adults’ feeling thermometer ratings for transgender people were strongly correlated with their thermometer scores for gay, lesbian, and bisexual targets, although it is noteworthy that attitudes toward transgender people were significantly more negative than attitudes toward sexual minorities. The significant correlations between transgender thermometer ratings and scores on the ATG and ATL scales—which, in contrast to the thermometers, focus on condemnation and tolerance of gay men and lesbians (Herek 2009a)—provide further evidence of a strong psychological linkage between the two attitude domains.

More recently, Rye, Merritt, & Straatsma (2019) compared attitudes toward trans people and queer people among Canadian college students, and once again found a strong correlation between anti-LGB sentiment and anti-trans sentiment. However, in this study, the authors add the caveat that one may not be able to “be considered a predictor of the other” – because these measures overlap so much that they may effectively be measuring the same phenomenon:

Because the TBS and the ATLG were so highly correlated (r = 0.82, p < .0001), it could be argued that they overlap too much for one to be considered a predictor of the other (i.e., both are attitudes toward sexual minorities and social perceivers outside of these groups may not differentiate between transgender and sexual orientation minorities).

There was a far stronger correlation between anti-trans sentiment and anti-LGB sentiment than there was between anti-trans sentiment and any other variable, including measures such as attitudes toward women’s roles in society (including attitudes of both hostile sexism and “benevolent” sexism), right-wing authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, personal experience with sexual minorities, and personal comfort with sexual content and topics generally. The authors note that within their statistical analysis, attitudes toward LGB people were seen as “usurping other individual difference variables’ predictive ability”:

Attitudes toward gay men and lesbians also demonstrated the strongest beta weights within multiple regression equations, usurping other individual difference variables’ predictive ability. The ATLG and TBS may be distinct yet overlapping measures of a latent construct of sexual minority prejudice. However framed, homophobia is likely to always be the “best” predictor of transphobia and these two constructs probably share a common foundation (Nagoshi et al., 2008).

Once again, for emphasis: “homophobia is likely to always be the ‘best’ predictor of transphobia and these two constructs probably share a common foundation”. While this certainly does not mean that there would never be those people who hold intense prejudice toward sexual minorities while somehow being entirely trans-accepting, or even that there will never be some parent somewhere who would rather have a straight trans child than a gay cis child, the evidence strongly suggests that such instances would be far out of the norm – and certainly not prevalent enough to justify asserting that such attitudes are a widespread or commonplace phenomenon.

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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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