What makes some people hold transphobic views?

Anti-trans attitudes don't bloom in a vacuum

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 17, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

JK Rowling and Dave Chappelle (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
JK Rowling and Dave Chappelle (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Following 2021's aggressive, unprecedented wave of anti-trans legislation, seven U.S. states introduced measures that would curtail the rights of transgender and non-binary youth in just the first week of this January. In related news, hate crimes against the trans community have been rising as well. What's going on here? Why are so many people out there so worked up over other people's gender expression? Maybe there's an inevitable rhythm to social progress, and with increased visibility comes increased and often ugly outcry. It doesn't make any of it less painful, dangerous or alarming. It simply demands we look for reasons, so we can start to find solutions.

Anti-trans attitudes don't bloom in a vacuum. They bloom in exactly the political conditions we're living under right now. Way back in 2008, a study of undergraduate students published in the research journal Sex Roles found that "For both sexes, transphobia and homophobia were highly correlated with each other and with right-wing authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and hostile sexism." 

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Research out of the United Kingdom and Belgium in 2017 revealed similar findings and even deeper motivation. "Perceiving ambiguity surrounding indeterminate gender identities associated with transgender individuals may be especially disturbing for those who generally dislike ambiguity and have preference for order and predictability, that is, for people scoring higher on Need for Closure (NFC)," the study, published in Sex Roles, noted. After testing the correlation between NFC and transphobia, the authors found that "NFC was significantly associated with transphobia through both stronger adherence to social conventions and obedience to authorities (i.e., right-wing authoritarianism)."

And now here with are, living with what President Biden recently called "a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy." Is it any wonder that the Venn diagram of people who love authoritarianism and fear trans people is a near perfect circle, or that it's filled with all the usual suspects? Last year, Marjorie Taylor Greene gained attention both for hanging an anti-trans sign outside her office opposite that of a fellow representative with a transgender daughter, and for declaring that trans men and women are "destroying God's creation." And in October, after Dr. Rachel Levine made history as with her appointment as a four-star admiral, Tucker Carlson blew a gasket, declaring on his show that "the Biden administration declared that a biological man who wears a dress is now a female admiral…. You have to ask yourself how long will it be before Joe Biden appoints his horse to the Supreme Court." I didn't even know Joe Biden had a horse.

It's not surprising that extreme trolls would take extreme positions. But there are other contributing factors to transphobia that affect all of us, because it's not just an individual problem. As Clark University Professor of Psychology Abbie Goldberg, who recently published "How to tell if your college is trans-inclusive," in The Conversation, says, "We live in a society that is fundamentally transphobic by virtue of the fact that being cisgender is positioned as normative and trans/all other gender identities are other (and thus lesser than/devalued/deviant/etc.); this is reinforced by the medical community, school systems, etc." 

"In this context," she says, "it is difficult for people in general not to be shaped by transphobic assumptions and ideas (the idea that trans is 'wrong')." And people who place a high value on binary gender identities can hold these assumptions more tightly. A 2018 study out of St. Louis University found a correlation between more fixed gender ideals and a perception of a "distinctiveness threat" around trans people.

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Most of us can be shaped by our assumptions without becoming immutable within them. Some prefer to double down. There was a time when J.K. Rowling was just the author of one of the most beloved book series ever written, and not also the person who fears sharing a bathroom with "any man who believes or feels he's a woman." There was a time when a Dave Chapelle standup special wouldn't inspire a walkout at the network airing it. When Graham Linehan was just the guy who created "The IT Crowd." Over the past few years, however, they've all had to have the assessments of their fans and the entires on their Wikipedia pages updated, thanks to their hostile comments about trans people. Linehan has pretty much become a full time transphobe now, to the extent that in 2020 he was banned from Twitter for comments like "Men aren't women tho." (Maybe we should have seen that one coming.)

Karen Tibbals, author of "Don't Preach: Restoring Civility across the Political Divide," says that "Transphobia is one of the manifestations of the conservative interpretation of sacredness. It goes against what they believe is true about how the world is supposed to be. Because it traces to a deep value, it is hard to overcome. This is an application of a theory in psychology called Moral Foundation Theory."

You can see what she's talking about when you examine one of the pillars of Moral Foundation Theory — the concept of fairness. "You have to look at it from a woman's perspective," Dave Chapelle says in 'The Closer.' Look at it like this, Caitlyn Jenner was voted woman of the year her first year as a woman. Ain't that something? I'd be mad as sh*t if I was a woman." The joke to Chapelle is the perceived injustice of it all. And Joe Rogan, who frequently treats the trans community as a favored punchline, retreated to his own sense of victimhood and bias on his show last summer that 'The most vicious sh*t is coming from transgender people or gay people.'" 

There are no easy or surefire means of changing anybody's mind, just as there's no one reason someone holds bigoted or simply ignorant views. The optimistic among us have to keep looking toward the signs of progress as well as the setbacks, and appealing to the reason of those who possess it. Karen Tibbals says, "One way to overcome it is to access other deeply held beliefs. An example of how to do this could be saying something like: 'Shouldn't people who are trans also deserve to work hard to achieve the American dream?'" Or maybe, shouldn't a trans woman also get to be a woman of the year?

More of our trans rights coverage: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Dave Chapelle Explainer Jk Rowling Transgender Transphobia