Editor’s note: This article is part of The Conversation’s collaboration with Point Taken, a new program from WGBH that next airs on Tuesday, May 24 on PBS and online at pbs.org. The show features fact-based debate on major issues of the day, without the shouting.
There is a long way to go before transgender people throughout the United States are treated with respect and dignity, as shown by the opposition in some places to trans people using restrooms that match their gender identity. A number of states and school districts have taken a stand against the Obama administration’s reading of Title VII and Title IX—amendments that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation—as applying to transgender people too.
But as a scholar on the experiences of young trans people, I believe my research suggests that it is only a matter of time before trans people achieve equal rights and wider social acceptance. While gender is different from sexuality, the history of the struggle for same-sex marriage in this country shows why this will be the case.
From social outlaws to family in-laws
Prior to the year 2000, no state recognized same-sex marriages or even civil unions. At the time, the federal government also defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Public opinion polls indicated that a clear majority of heterosexual people in the U.S. opposed the recognition of same-sex relationships.
By 2011, six states had legalized same-sex marriages, and national opinion polls showed an equal split between those in favor and those opposed on the issue. And by the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country, proponents led opponents, according to the Pew Research Center, by 16 percentage points. The ruling was heralded by President Obama, who had “evolved” to become supportive. The White House, where Democratic President Bill Clinton had signed a law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was lit up in the colors of the rainbow flag.
How did such a dramatic change occur in a little more than 15 years?
Foremost, it was the demographic power of millennials that led to changes in opinion polls—a trend that policymakers could not ignore. Millennials generally see same-sex marriage as a basic civil rights issue and back it by a wide margin. Older generations have also become more supportive during the last decade, but by a much lesser degree. This means, demographically, the number of individuals who are supportive will grow over time, while members of older generations, who are generally less supportive, will pass away.
Support for the issue among heterosexual millennials was largely based on their knowing individuals who self-disclosed to them as lesbian, gay or bisexual—friends, coworkers and sometimes partners. The issue became personal.
Research has consistently found that heterosexual, cisgender (non-transgender) people in the U.S. who know a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individual are generally more supportive of that particular group and their rights.
It is difficult to deny the humanity of a group of people if someone close to you belongs to that group. And according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, 90 percent of heterosexual millennials report personally knowing someone who identifies as lesbian or gay. That includes 58 percent who have a close friend or family member who is out to them as lesbian or gay.
To know us is to at least like us
Trans people are just beginning to benefit from this support-by-personal-contact effect because there are seemingly fewer of us than cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual people—and fewer of us are out.
A 2011 Williams Institute study placed the number of LGBT people in the United States at approximately nine million, of which about 700,000 are transgender. In terms of U.S. adolescents, estimates suggest between one-half percent and 1.5 percent are transgender, whereas estimates of cisgender LGBQ youth range from 4 percent to 9 percent.
As reflected in schools and colleges throughout the country, a growing number of young people are coming out as trans. But many others are not out, or out to only a few cisgender family members, friends, and colleagues, because the climate has often been hostile for trans people. A national study I conducted for a book I am writing on LGBTQ+ college students found that only about half of the students who identify outside of a gender binary were out to a parent.
According to a 2015 Harris poll, just 16 percent of non-LGBT people say that they personally know someone who identifies as transgender. While this figure is double the percent found in a 2008 study, it pales in comparison to that 90 percent figure for knowing someone lesbian or gay. For many cisgender individuals, trans people will remain a scary, amorphous danger until they knowingly have direct experiences with trans people.
There is a catch-22 here.
If more trans people were out, it would help improve the political and social climate for us. However, many trans people understandably do not want to self-disclose, if they can avoid it, because the current climate is often hostile. Trans individuals who are out now, many of whom are young people, regularly encounter harassment and microaggressions, such as being misgendered and verbally and physically attacked in bathrooms.
But, at the same time, young, out trans people are bringing about changes in cisgender people’s attitudes that will help ensure trans individuals in the future will have equal rights and not experience this level of discrimination.
According to a 2015 Human Rights Campaign survey, for example, 66 percent of cisgender individuals who said they know a transgender person expressed supportive feelings toward them, as compared to 37 percent support among cisgender individuals who indicated that they do not know a transgender person.
Trans college students
My own research on transgender college students who have come out describes the struggles they must overcome to be treated with dignity on their campus. While some trans students find their college has policies in place to support them, most discover that their institution denies them the ability to feel safe and fully be themselves.
Few colleges formally acknowledge and respect transgender students by, for example, recognizing the first name that trans individuals use for themselves, providing a nonmedical means to switch the M/F gender marker on campus records, or enabling them to be recognized as neither M/F. Only about 150 colleges enable trans students to change their name on campus records without having to make changes to legal documents, and only about 50 will change the gender marker without students having to making legal changes.
Similarly, colleges that do not provide gender-inclusive bathrooms, housing, or locker rooms signal to trans students, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that they should not be out and are not welcomed at the institution. The lack of administrative support for trans students creates a negative campus climate. This is exacerbated by the failure of colleges to require students, staff, and faculty to attend an educational session to address discrimination against trans people, as is commonly done to counter sexual harassment.
The inclusion of gender identity and expression under Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination will make campuses more trans-inclusive over time. The law requires colleges to treat trans students in accordance with their identity and gives them recourse if they experience harassment or discrimination because of their gender identity or expression.
But laws and policies can only do so much. Transgender people and cisgender supporters will still need to push institutions and society at large to change and understand that gender is not a binary. This is gradually happening.
While open opposition to trans people being treated in keeping with their gender identity is increasing, so too is support. For example, the passage of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law has led to a boycott of the state by a growing list of businesses, other state and city governments, national organizations, and musicians.
A recent national opinion poll finds that almost 60 percent of people in the U.S. oppose laws like the one in North Carolina. That same poll indicates that three-quarters of cisgender people support laws guaranteeing equal protection for transgender individuals.
It took 15 years to bring about a sea change on same-sex marriage. Transgender equality nationwide is not only a matter of time, but it is likely to happen faster.