Since the mid-1990s, there has been a seismic shift in attitudes toward gay and lesbian people, with a majority of Americans now supporting same-sex marriage and relations between same-sex, consenting adults. However, support for transgender individuals lags far behind; a significant majority of Americans do not support the right of transgender people to be free from discrimination in housing, employment, public spaces, health care, legal documents, and other areas. Much of this is due to deeply entrenched ideas about the definition of gender, perceptions that transgender people are not "real" or are suffering from mental illness, and fears that extending rights to transgender people will come at the expense of the rights of others. So how do you get people to rethink their prejudices?
In their book Transforming Prejudice: Identity, Fear, and Transgender Rights
(Oxford University Press, 2020), Melissa R. Michelson
and Brian F. Harrison
examine what tactics are effective in changing public opinion regarding transgender people. The result is a new approach that they call Identity Reassurance Theory. The idea is that individuals need to feel confident in their own identity before they can embrace a stigmatized group like transgender people, and that support of members of an outgroup can be encouraged by affirming the self-esteem of those targeted for attitude change. Michelson and Harrison, through their experiments, show that the most effective messaging on transgender issues meets people where they are, acknowledges their discomfort without judgment or criticism, and helps them to think about transgender people and rights in a way that aligns with their view of themselves as moral human beings.
In this interview, Dr. Michelson, Dr. Harrison, and I discuss common issues faced by transgender people, and the ideologies that contribute to anti-transgender discrimination. We then discuss three of the nine experiments conducted by Michelson and Harrison that provide empirical evidence to support the claims in their book. Lastly, we discuss potential ways to change discriminatory beliefs towards transgender people. I recommend this book for people interested in public opinion, social psychology, and LGBTQ issues.
Dr. Melissa R. Michelson (@profmichelson
) is Professor of Political Science at Menlo College. Dr. Brian F. Harrison (@brianfharrison
) is a Lecturer at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Founder and President of Voters for Equality.
Krystina Millar is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University. Her research interests include gender, sociology of the body, and sexuality. You can find her on Twitter at @KrystinaMillar.