EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Thekla Morgenroth¹, Jordan Axt² and Erin Westgate³
31.08.2021, by Tina Keil in grant report
Department of Psychology at University of Exeter¹, UK; McGill University², Canada; University of Florida³, USA
What underlies the opposition to trans-inclusive policies?
Views of gender are changing. In the Western world, gender has traditionally been viewed as binary and as following directly from biological sex. More recently, however, these views have started to change: Gender is seen, at least by some, as less binary and more independent of sex. These changes are reflected in societal developments such as the growing support for transgender individuals (e.g. Lily Madigan being appointed as the UK Labour Party’s first transgender women's officer) and in new policies and practices (e.g. unisex bathrooms; Germany legally recognising a third gender).
At the same time, there has been very strong opposition to these changes (Kováts, 2017), exemplified by the recent heated debate around the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, in which the legal procedures by which transgender individuals can have their self-identified gender recognised were questioned, particularly in the context of transgender women’s access to female-only spaces (e.g. women’s restrooms or changing rooms).
One common argument in these debates is that giving transgender women access to female-only spaces poses a risk to women’s safety (Colliver, 2021), either because transwomen themselves pose a risk or because such policies enable cisgender men to gain access to vulnerable women, either by posing as transgender women or, if sex-segregated spaces are abolished, through access to women in unisex spaces (e.g., unisex bathrooms). While there is no evidence that transgender women pose a threat to women’s safety, women’s concern regarding violence committed by men should not be dismissed, given the fact that women are the primary victims of gender-based violence and men are the primary perpetrators (see Smith et al., 2018).
However, there are several reasons to believe that opposition to trans-inclusive policies are not truly driven by such concerns, but instead a reflection of prejudice against transgender people. First, while the concern that trans women pose a threat to women’s safety is not uncommon among cis women (Trotta, 2016) research indicates that it is more pronounced among cis men, who in turn voice more concern for women’s safety (Stones, 2017). Surely, if women’s safety from male violence was the primary reason to oppose trans-inclusive policies, such concern should be higher among women – who are more vulnerable to gender-based violence – than among men. Instead, it is possible that trans prejudice, which is generally higher among men than women, may be driving opposition to these policies (Nagoshi et al., 2019).
Moreover, prominent examples of opposition to trans-inclusive policies and practices often seem to use concerns regarding women’s safety as a thin veil for prejudicial attitudes. For example, author J. K. Rowling recently voiced concerns that replacing sex with gender may pose a threat to survivors of sexual and domestic abuse while at the same time asserting that these concerns are not motivated by prejudice but that, instead, she supported trans women and wanted them to be safe (see Rowling, 2020). A few weeks later, she promoted an online store selling transphobic items (e.g., pins with slogans such as “f*ck your pronouns” and “notorious transphobe”) – a clear inconsistency with her previous statement (see Greenspan, 2020).
However, while such anecdotal examples provide some indication that prejudice, rather than concerns regarding women’s safety, is the true motivator underlying the opposition to trans-inclusive policies and practices, these issues have yet to be investigated empirically. With help from this EASP Seedcorn Grant, we investigated predictors of support and opposition for trans-inclusive policies and practices. More specifically, we tested whether the reasons that people provide for supporting or opposing such practices are aligned with correlational analyses exploring whether safety concerns or transgender prejudice are stronger predictors of policy beliefs. Focusing on two reasons – attitudes towards trans people and perceptions of men as a threat to women’s safety – we investigated whether opponents, compared to supporters, of trans-inclusive policies portray their reasons for their opposition/support less accurately such that they state that their opposition is motivated by concerns for women’s safety, when it is in fact more motivated by prejudice.
Methodology and Findings
The EASP Seedcorn Grant enabled us to run one well-powered study that we meta-analysed together with three studies using very similar methodologies with participants from the US and the UK (N = 1873). In these studies, participants indicated their support for different trans-supportive policies which focused on sex-segregated spaces (e.g., “Women’s shelters should also be accessible to anyone who identifies as a woman.”). They then responded to self-report items asking to what extent their support or opposition was informed by concerns about male violence and their attitudes towards trans people. We also recorded participants’ explicit and implicit attitudes towards trans people and the extent to which they associated men with violence. We used the Implicit Association Test (IAT) as a measure of implicit attitudes towards transgender people (Axt, Conway, Westgate & Buttrick, 2020).
We found that, in line with predictions, opponents of trans-inclusive policies listed male violence as their primary reason, while the opposite was the case for supporters of trans-inclusive policies (see Figure). This stood in contrast to the correlations in our data, which indicated that for both supporters and opponents, explicit attitudes towards trans people were more strongly associated with levels of support than viewing men as violent. For supporters, but not opponents, the same was true for implicit attitudes.
Trans-inclusive policies are controversial, and concerns about women’s safety are often used as an argument to oppose them. However, our research suggests that opponents of trans-inclusive policies are either unwilling or unable to report their true motivators. Attitudes towards trans people, rather than concerns about male violence, are the strongest predictor of opposition, highlighting the importance of going beyond the discourse and investigate the underlying psychological mechanisms. These findings also have important implications for transgender rights advocates as they suggest that refuting arguments proposed by those who oppose trans-inclusive policies may not be effective for creating change. Instead, strategies should aim at shifting attitudes towards transgender people.
- Axt, J. R., Conway, M. A., Westgate, E. C., & Buttrick, N. R. (2017). Implicit transgender attitudes independently predict gender and transgender-related beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220921065
- Colliver, B. (2021). Claiming Victimhood: Victims of the “Transgender Agenda”. In The Emerald International Handbook of Technology Facilitated Violence and Abuse. Emerald Publishing Limited.
- Greenspan, R. E (2020, September 23). J K Rowling promoted a store selling anti-trans merch saying 'transwomen are men' and 'f--- your pronouns'. Insider. Retrieved from https://www.insider.com/jk-rowling-terf-online-store-selling-anti-trans-merch-2020-9
- Kováts, E. (2017). The emergence of powerful anti-gender movements in Europe and the crisis of liberal democracy. In Gender and far right politics in Europe (pp. 175-189). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
- Nagoshi, C. T., Cloud, J. R., Lindley, L. M., Nagoshi, J. L., & Lothamer, L. J. (2019). A test of the three-component model of gender-based prejudices: Homophobia and transphobia are affected by raters’ and targets’ assigned sex at birth. Sex Roles, 80(3-4), 137-146. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0919-3
- Rowling, J. K. (2020, June 10). J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues. Retrieved from https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/
- Smith, S.G., Zhang, X., Basile, K.C., Merrick, M.T., Wang, J., Kresnow, M., Chen, J. (2018). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 data brief – updated release. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/2015data-brief508.pdf
- Stones, R. J. (2017). Which gender is more concerned about transgender women in female bathrooms? Gender Issues, 34(3), 275-291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12147-016-9181-6
- Trotta, D. (2016, April 21). Exclusive: Women, young more open on transgender issue in U.S. – Reuters/Ipsos poll. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-lgbt-poll-idUSKCN0XI11M