New Research Shows Split on How People Consider Transgender Rights Issues

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The Trump administration in late February withdrew Obama administration federal protections for transgender students that would allow them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

Transgender activists protested outside the White House. With two presidents essentially taking opposite stances on the issue within a year, it is obvious how polarizing transgender rights policies have become, said a University of Kansas researcher of partisanship and American politics.

“For as hotly contested as transgender rights are for some people, we don’t know a lot about how Americans think about this set of issues and what shapes those attitudes,” said Patrick Miller, a KU assistant professor of political science. “We don’t have a very rich understanding about how average people think about transgender rights.”

Miller was lead author of a new study measuring attitudes on transgender rights issues that found significant support for protection of general civil rights for transgender people — like equal access to military service, employment and housing non-discrimination laws. However, public opinion is more divided on policies that relate to the body and gender roles, such as people being able to choose which public restroom to use based on one’s gender identity or the ability to change one’s sex on a state-issued driver’s license.

“On traditional civil rights debates, people are more liberal on those issues when it comes to transgender people,” Miller said. “On policies that are more body-related, such as physical changes and physical presentation of gender, all of which are more specific to the transgender community, more Americans seem to differentiate those and can be more conservative on those questions. People don’t see all transgender rights questions equally.”

The journal Politics, Groups, and Identities recently published the study online. The article, “Transgender politics as body politics: effects of disgust sensitivity and authoritarianism on transgender rights attitudes,” includes Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the KU Department of Political Science, as a co-author, and the research team has completed a series of studies on transgender politics that will appear in a variety of journals this year.

Miller said regarding body-centric policy questions — such as questions about public restroom choice, or whether Medicare or health insurance companies should be required to pay for gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy — those most opposed are people who report having a higher tendency to feel disgusted in general, though not specifically about transgender people. Also, more opposed are those who score higher on a psychological trait called “authoritarianism,” which represents a higher need for order or to see the world in black-and-white terms. These individuals may place greater value on conforming to traditional social norms.

The researchers found those traits outweighed factors such as partisanship, ideology, and demographics in shaping attitudes about transgender rights, he said.

The findings would make sense given that much of the controversy surrounding debates at the federal level and in state legislatures have centered around transgender rights policies such as public restrooms, identity on driver’s licenses, and coverage for medical procedures.

“For many Americans, when they think about transgender people, their mind is on the body and how that defines transgender people in some ways, and maybe how that makes them different in some ways,” Miller said.

The study could provide insight for transgender rights advocates. Oftentimes it is communicated that it is taboo or offensive to discuss issues surrounding the body and transgender people, such as how someone dresses or how someone is undergoing medical transformations to their body.

“Certainly, I understand people have the attitude that it is ‘none of your business’ or ‘why would you ask that?'” Miller said. “But I think the implication of our research is that the evidence points toward the body being a major consideration that people have. So, if you want to lead society in a more accepting direction on things like the bathroom debate, you might be doing yourself more harm than good to not engage with questions about the body and to shut down those questions and discussions.”

Researchers consider the transgender population to be around 0.5 percent of the American population, and it’s likely most people won’t have direct contact with a transgender person, he said. However, as mass media news coverage and depictions of characters in popular culture becomes more common, that could influence how people think about the minority group. That also could spur more people to become curious and ask more questions about the transgender community, spurring some of those conversations that might be seen as taboo, he said.

“That’s an area where engagement may be uncomfortable for some people,” Miller said, “but it could be beneficial if you want people to be more sympathetic and understanding of the experiences that transgender people have.”

Same-Sex Marriage Legalization Linked to Reduction in Suicide Attempts Among High School Students

MARYLAND — The implementation of state laws legalizing same-sex marriage was associated with a significant reduction in the rate of suicide attempts among high school students – and an even greater reduction among gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests.

The researchers, publishing Feb. 20 in JAMA Pediatrics, estimate that state-level, same-sex marriage policies were associated with more than 134,000 fewer adolescent suicide attempts per year. The study compared states that passed laws allowing same-sex marriage through Jan. 2015 to states that did not enact state-level legalization. A Supreme Court decision made same-sex marriage federal law in June of 2015.

The findings show the effect that social policies can have on behavior, the researchers say.

“These are high school students so they aren’t getting married any time soon, for the most part,” says study leader Julia Raifman, ScD, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School. “Still, permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. There may be something about having equal rights – even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them – that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.”

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 in the United States (behind unintentional injury). Suicide rates have been rising in the U.S., and data indicate that rates of suicide attempts requiring medical attention among adolescents increased 47 percent between 2009 and 2015. Gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students are at particular risk. In the new study, 29 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students reported attempting suicide in the previous year as compared to six percent of heterosexual teens.

For the study, Raifman and her colleagues analyzed data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a survey supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data included 32 of the 35 states that enacted same-sex marriage policies between Jan. 1, 2004 and Jan. 1, 2015. The researchers used data from Jan. 1, 1999 to Dec. 31, 2015 to capture trends in suicide attempts five years before the first same-sex marriage policy went into effect in Massachusetts. They were also able to compare data with states that did not enact same-sex marriage laws. They conducted state-by-state analyses, comparing, for example, suicide attempt rates in a state like Massachusetts before same-sex marriage was legalized to the period right after.

State same-sex marriage legalization policies were associated with a seven percent reduction in suicide attempts among high school students generally. The association was concentrated in sexual minorities, with a 14 percent reduction in suicide attempts among gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents. The effects persisted for at least two years. The states that did not implement same-sex marriage saw no reduction in suicide attempts among high school students.

It’s unclear whether the political campaigns surrounding same-sex marriage legalization were behind the reduction in suicide attempts or the laws themselves. Still, they found that the reduction in suicide attempts wasn’t realized until after a law was enacted. In a state that would go on to pass a law two years in the future – when there was likely to be much conversation in the public about it – suicide attempts remained flat before passage.

Healthy People 2020, a program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has a goal of reducing adolescent suicide rates by 10 percent by 2020. The new research suggests that the legalization of same-sex marriage has been very effective in making progress toward that goal.

Despite the large reduction in suicide attempts among gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students, this population still attempts suicide at higher rates than their straight peers.

“It’s not easy to be an adolescent, and for adolescents who are just realizing they are sexual minorities, it can be even harder – that’s what the data on disparities affecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents tell us,” Raifman says.

She says gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents are also at increased risk of substance abuse, depression and HIV. Despite evidence of disparities, she says there are no population-level programs aimed at reducing suicide attempts in gay, lesbian and bisexual students. She says schools and medical providers must understand that students who are sexual minorities are at higher risk and be on high alert.

While Raifman found that legalizing same-sex marriage appears to be positively associated with reducing suicide attempts, policies that take away rights or add to stigma could have the opposite effect.

“We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views,” Raifman says. “Policymakers need to be aware that policies on sexual minority rights can have a real effect on the mental health of adolescents. The policies at the top can dictate in ways both positive and negative what happens further down.”

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