What’s the Best Strategy for Fighting LGBTQ Prejudice?

Can knocking on doors really fight transphobia?

Cameron Whitman/Thinkstock

It’s easy to dismiss the recent anti–LGBT legislation in North Carolina and Mississippi—and similar bills on the way in other states—as coldhearted bigotry. And to be sure, some politicians and citizens in those states are hostile to queer people on a dogmatic level—just look at the North Carolina youth pastor who declared during hearings for HB2, “I will be a homophobic bigot until the day that I die.” But that’s not the entire story: For many voters, the efficacy of anti–LGBT fear-mongering—particularly on the issue of transgender bathroom access—is dependent not upon deep-seated hate, but honest (and easily exploited) ignorance.

So far, LGBT advocates have not found an effective way to combat this ignorance—a situation that was tragically on display in the defeat of Houston’s “HERO” nondiscrimination ordinance last fall and that continues in the flat-footedness with which these state bathroom bills are being addressed. But two studies out this week suggest different strategies we might employ, one based in “born this way” biological arguments about identity and the other concerned with the encouraging of empathy through direct engagement. While you could argue that, at this point, we should take any points we can score, one seems much more promising than the other.

Mark Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, two political science professors at Kansas University, published a paper in the journal Social Science Quarterly this week looking at how the notion that sexual orientation is based in genetics affects the way straight people view lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. (The study did not directly address transgender perception.) By analyzing a June 2014 nationwide survey of 1,010 adults, the researchers found that belief in a genetic explanation for sexual difference usually led to an acceptance of “immutability” of orientation. Additionally, the increase of belief in a genetic origin over the last few decades seemed to be part of the reason support for marriage equality grew over the same timeframe. Joslyn explained in a statement: “If people believe being gay or lesbian is a result of genetics, not choice or social circumstance, then they also tend to believe that homosexuality cannot be changed. This deterministic thinking, we found, makes the behavior of homosexuality less questionable, or morally troubling, in the minds of many respondents.”

From a purely functionalist perspaective, these results would seem to be good news. But, of course, the actual science on the origins of sexuality is far from clear. Indeed, at this point, the notion of a “gay gene” or even set of genes has been largely dismissed in favor of partial explanations based in complex interactions between genes, larger chromosomal structures, and the environment. In other words, the straightforward “genetic” origin that’s brought so many heteros over to the side of LGB equality is something of a myth. But that’s just the beginning of the problem. Building your demand for dignity and equality on a foundation of biology is risky, given that the science could turn against you at any moment. More profoundly, it also trades the need for a truly pluralistic model of acceptance—a society in which difference is respected and valued as a matter of course—for what amounts to an excuse: Don’t hate me, I can’t help it.

Far more encouraging is the work of David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, published this week in Science. The research—which thankfully recuperates claims about fighting homophobia that might sound familiar from an earlier faked data scandal last spring—shows that, on the issue of transphobia, a “single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months.” Put more plainly, the researchers found that when their team of 56 canvassers discussed perceptions of trans people with voters around Miami, they were able to foment more positive views—and, based on follow-up interviews, those views stuck.

To understand what this “conversation” looks like, New York Times magazine contributor Benoit Denizet-Lewis went canvassing with Dave Fleischer, director of the Los Angeles–based Leadership Lab—the LGBTQ advocacy organization whose direct engagement model inspired the original discredited study as well as this new one. Denizet-Lewis’ portrait, out in this weekend’s issue of the magazine, reveals many fascinating aspects of the struggle to reduce prejudice—for one thing, being pro-gay does not necessarily make a person pro-trans, and, in accordance with the new research, speaking with a trans canvasser isn’t necessarily more effective than talking trans issues with a cisgender person. But the takeaway is that, if you want to get through to those nervous or ignorant about people different from themselves, “cerebral arguments and appeals to fairness” are not the way to go. (Fleischer tried that with gay marriage; it “failed miserably,” he told Denizet-Lewis.) Far more powerful were efforts at establishing empathy.

Take this exchange between Fleischer and Nancy, a “gray-haired Hispanic woman” in west Los Angeles who, during the encounter, changed her support of trans people from a 10 to a 5 after viewing an anti-trans video meant to test the strength of her initial rating:

“Is this the first time you’ve thought about transgender people?” Fleischer asked her soon after she backtracked.

“Yeah, I would say so,” she said. “I know it exists, and I hear stories, and I see them on TV. But I don’t have any friends like I do my gay friends.”

Fleischer nodded and removed a picture of his friend Jackson from his wallet. “For me, I never had a transgender friend I was really close to until I was 56,” he said, handing Nancy the picture. “Jackson grew up as a girl, but he knew even when he was 5 or 6 that he was really a boy. It was only in his 20s that he started to tell his folks the truth, and he started making the transition to living as a man. He’s married to a woman now, and he’s so much happier. And he can grow a better beard than I can!”

Nancy laughed. “That’s the thing—they’re happier when they come out, whenever everybody knows,” she said. She seemed to be connecting Jackson’s experience to that of her gay friends.

Nancy and Fleischer go on to discuss their own experiences of discrimination, Nancy’s from her background as an immigrant to the United States from Central America and Fleischer’s from his being gay. By the end of the conversation, she said she viewed trans people “the same as I see myself.” She was back to a 10.

As Denizet-Lewis points out, there are issues of scaling with this model of direct engagement. On that point, I share my colleague Mark Joseph Stern’s feeling that we must invest as much in legal remedies to inequality as we might in this sort of social engineering. However, it is undeniably encouraging to learn that for many folks, when it comes to the question of learning to love their neighbors, all it may take is a friendly conversation.