One Conversation Can Curb Transphobia, New Study Finds
The new results make LGBT advocates hopeful for change, though no one knows why a brief chat can be so powerful.
Volunteer door-to-door canvassers who engaged in a 10-minute conversation were able to reduce some voters’ negative feelings about trans people for up to three months, a new study suggests.
This decrease in prejudice was greater, the researchers say, than the change in Americans’ feelings toward gay people from 1998 to 2012.
The study, published today in the journal Science, may have strong implications for changing voter attitudes during a time when many cities and states — including Houston, Tennessee, Mississippi, and most recently, North Carolina — are introducing legislation to ban transgender people from certain restrooms, among other things, based on harmful stereotypes about transgender women being sex predators.
“A lot of the previous studies on voters suggested things like prejudice and political views are really stubborn and resistant to change,” David Broockman, assistant professor of political economy at Stanford and co-author of the study, told BuzzFeed News. “What we found are these really large and lasting changes. We couldn’t have anticipated it.”
The new study came out of a collaboration between advocates at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, who developed the canvassing method, and at SAVE Miami, who implemented the canvassing in South Florida. Broockman and his scientific colleagues then analyzed the data gleaned from these interactions.
Fifty-six canvassers — some of whom were transgender and some who weren’t — engaged in conversations with voters who had previously responded to a survey sent out by Broockman and his group. (The voters did not know the two events were related.) After the initial canvassing effort, Broockman sent follow-up surveys 3 days, 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 3 months afterward to measure voter attitudes towards transgender people. These surveys were compared to another group of voters who had been through a “placebo” conversation about recycling.
The researchers found that, after the intervention, the group that had gone through the 10-minute conversation about transgender issues had much more accepting attitudes towards transgender people than the placebo group who had talked about recycling. (This was true regardless of whether the canvasser was transgender.)
Measured on a 101-point “feelings thermometer” commonly used to assess voter attitudes, positive feelings increased by an average of 10 points. The researchers pointed out that this jump is larger than the average 8.5 point increase in positive feelings toward gays and lesbians that was observed in Americans from 1998 to 2012.
People in the group that had been canvassed about transgender issues were also more resistant to being swayed by an attack ad featuring anti-transgender stereotypes.
“To the degree that people go in either not understanding trans issues, [or] maybe having negative perceptions of trans people, they come out of this having much fewer of those fears,” Gary Gates, who recently retired as research director at UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy and was not involved in the study, told BuzzFeed News.
The results come nearly a year after the now-notorious study by then-UCLA graduate student Michael LaCour that Broockman and co-author Joshua Kalla exposed as fraudulent. LaCour’s study had argued that gay canvassers advocating for same-sex marriage were able to change voters’ minds.
Initially heralded by LGBT advocates as a huge victory, and made especially visible by a This American Life episode on the topic, the study ran into problems when the Los Angeles LGBT Center asked Broockman and Kalla to conduct a follow-up study that looked at voter attitudes towards transgender people.
“That [LaCour] study was very vague on how it was actually done,” Broockman said. “Not too vague for peer reviewers, but sort of like if you were reading a cookbook and it said ‘bake the chicken’ — we were wondering at what temperature, for how long?”
They discovered that LaCour’s data analysis had been completely faked. Shortly after Broockman and Kalla published their critique, the study was retracted.
“It was terrible, truly terrible, to learn about all this,” Dave Fleischer, director of the Leadership LAB at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, who developed and oversaw the canvassing effort, told BuzzFeed News. “The only silver lining was that David and Josh had uncovered the fraud and now they were about to measure us for real.”
The LaCour controversy initially cast a shadow on the entire endeavor.
“The LaCour study really ended up calling into question the efficacy of these kinds of outreach efforts in election campaigns or referendums,” Gates said. And yet, he said, the idea that LaCour’s theory was totally wrong “seemed inconsistent with the experiences of many people on the ground.”
Advocates are relieved that the new study found that those experiences were, in fact, legitimate.
“It’s lovely that the real results are better than the ones Mike LaCour made up, but we could not have known how it would come out,” Fleischer said.
No one understands why Broockman’s team saw such a big jump in positive attitudes towards transgender people — especially considering the hard-fought battles to change mainstream feelings towards gays and lesbians over the past few decades.
Some say it’s possible that greater visibility of transgender people in pop culture — sometimes called the “Caitlyn Jenner” effect — means that voter attitudes are more willing or able to be swayed, but only if the right conversation happens.
“I do think that the combination of marriage equality being nationwide, and the much broader visibility of trans people in the last year or so — Jenner, but also shows like Transparent, Orange is the New Black — that both of those things may mean that these conversations can in fact have a bigger impact than they may have had a few years ago,” said Gates.
Fleischer, who has worked closely on organizing efforts in the LGBT community for decades, disagrees.
“We have zero data to support that idea,” he said. “So although we’d love to think that Caitlyn Jenner alone could shoulder this burden, we might be killing ourselves to believe that. And there’s a lot of reason not to believe that.”
It could simply be that the conversation alone changes minds, he said.
“There are obviously a variety of things out there in the world that have played some causal role,” Fleischer added. “But what’s interesting to me is that we have a lot of stories we tell ourselves inside the LGBT community about what those causal stories might be — stories that we love — but it’s very, very easy to misjudge them.”