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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


HRC: Transgender Breakthrough

People in the United States have a surprising understanding and acceptance of transgendered lives, a major new survey shows

Transgendered people have been featured in several network TV shows and have been the subject of an Academy Award?winning film. But just how deep is the average American's understanding of transgender issues?

Deeper than you might think, according to the results of a first-of-its-kind national survey released September 21 at the Southern Comfort transgender conference in Atlanta. In fact, seven out of 10 people included in the report, "Public Perceptions of Transgender People," say they are familiar with the word transgender. And a majority of respondents believe it is "all right" to be transgendered.

"This report is groundbreaking," says Mara Keisling, a transgender activist and marketing consultant in Harrisburg, Pa., who worked on the poll with the Washington, D.C.?based gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which commissioned the study. "It is really the first opportunity to hear from the public what they think of us and our struggle." While there have been two or three regional polls on the public's view of transgendered people, Keisling says she knows of no other survey of a national scope.

The paucity of polling data is actually what prompted HRC to commission the $70,000 survey, says spokesman David Smith. "Two years ago, HRC incorporated transgender equality issues into its mission," he says. "Since then, in working on transgender issues, we've found an abysmal lack of research. We decided we needed some hard data that showed the public's attitudes and education level on this issue."

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the survey is that "a lot more people than we had anticipated are aware of" what it means to be transgendered, says Celinda Lake of Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, the Washington, D.C., firm that conducted the polling. Furthermore, she adds, there is an "overwhelming belief" that people can be born one sex but feel inside as if they are the other sex. Two thirds of the people surveyed agree with such a statement. (The report was based on six focus groups held in Baltimore and St. Louis and on a national phone survey of 800 registered, likely voters.)

Another surprise is the respondents' attitude toward transgendered people in public schools. Even after being read a description of what it means to be transgendered, a whopping 77% of respondents said they feel transgendered children should be allowed to attend public schools. The description reads:

"A transgender person is someone who is born as one gender but feels they are the opposite gender. This person may do certain things so that their outward appearance fits who they feel they are on the inside. They might dress as a person of the opposite gender, get medical treatment such as hormone therapy, or have surgery to change their appearance so they look like the gender that they feel they are. This could be a man changing to a woman or a woman changing to a man."

This support was strong even among demographic groups that otherwise hold generally unfavorable attitudes toward transgendered people. For example, 71% of Republicans and 69% of born-again Christians agree that transgendered kids should be allowed to attend public schools. Even 57% of those who say they believe being transgendered is "morally wrong" agree that transgendered kids should be allowed in public schools.

Support erodes significantly, however, when it comes to transgendered adults who are teachers. Fifty percent of those surveyed believe transgendered adults should be allowed to teach in high schools, but only about 40% believe they should be allowed to be elementary school, gym class, or day care teachers or scouting leaders.

In the areas of workplace discrimination and hate crimes, public attitudes toward the transgendered are also remarkably favorable: 74% say they would be OK working with a transgendered person; 61% favor laws to prevent workplace discrimination; and 68% support hate-crimes laws that cover transgendered people. "Those figures show very high general-public support against job discrimination and for hate-crimes laws," Lake says.

Other parts of the survey, however, display what Lake calls "a warning sign" about the difficulties that may lie ahead in swaying the public on a broader range of transgender issues. Generally, the more information and education the public has about a particular minority, the more positive their attitudes, she says. That's been clearly demonstrated in polls about gay and lesbian people. But this survey suggests the same may not necessarily be true for the transgendered. In fact, the report says that "in the short run, dialogue on this issue does not increase support."

After respondents were given the definition of what it means to be transgendered?an exercise that is considered an abbreviated form of education?they had a somewhat less favorable attitude toward transgendered people. Before being read the definition, 23% of respondents described their overall attitude toward transgendered people as "favorable"; 24% classified themselves as generally "unfavorable"; and 32% described themselves as "neutral." After they were read the definition, the percentage of those who ranked themselves "favorable" remained fairly constant, registering at 26%. But the proportion of those feeling "unfavorable" rose by more than a quarter, to 31%.

Similarly, before hearing a definition, 26% felt that being transgendered is "morally wrong," and 42% felt being transgendered is a choice. After hearing the definition, those numbers rose to 33% calling it "morally wrong" and 47% believing it is a choice.

The results are an important sign to activists that "they need to find the right language and means of education to get themselves heard in a positive way by the public," Lake says.

But perhaps the study's biggest implication, according to some activists, is that the public may be more accepting of efforts to include protections for transgendered people in hate-crimes and nondiscrimination laws than previously expected. In the past, many gay and lesbian activist groups?HRC among them?have promoted civil rights legislation that excluded protections for the transgendered, arguing that including those provisions would make it more difficult to pass the proposed laws. Transgender advocates now say these poll results are strong ammunition to undercut such an argument.

"The data should have a tremendous impact on gay and lesbian political leaders," says Shannon Minter, 41, a transgender activist and legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "There's less and less room for justification of keeping transgender people out of civil rights legislation because we would `hold it back.'"

"This data delivers a mortal blow to that argument," he adds. "The time is right to move forward aggressively with legislation that includes transgender protections."

Keisling shares Minter's hope. "I think this could be an amazing tool for changing attitudes among gay and lesbian activist groups" about including language addressing transgender issues in proposed civil rights laws. "The survey shows that the public is way ahead of the activists."

But HRC's Smith is hesitant to draw the connection. "Public opinion is important, but it's not everything," he says. "Public opinion doesn't always translate into political support." He points to the long battle in Congress over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? which does not include protections for transgendered people but would make it illegal to discriminate against gay men and lesbians in the workplace. "ENDA's enjoyed tremendous public support for years, but we've still not been able to get it passed," he says.

The survey results "will inform" HRC's upcoming legislative strategy but "will not guide it," Smith explains. "This isn't a green light to proceed full steam ahead. It's more of a yellow light. We need to proceed with caution."

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