Recent research explores the link between the gender binary and transprejudice.
Karen L. Blair Ph.D.
Sep 24, 2018
New research has attempted to better understand the circumstances under which individuals feel threatened by gender nonconforming behavior. In general, we know that people tend to respond negatively to individuals who do not adhere to the gender binary—that is, the notion that there are two sexes, male and female, and that whichever sex you are should clearly dictate your gender and gender role behaviors as either a man or a woman. If a person is biologically male but behaves in stereotypically feminine ways, we can call this gender nonconformity within a cisgender individual (i.e., someone whose biological sex is the same as their gender identity). Similarly, a transgender individual (i.e., someone whose sex identified at birth does not align with their gender identity) can be seen as gender nonconforming simply by being transgender.
Researchers at St. Louis University sought to determine which of these two types of gender nonconformity would be viewed as more unsettling to those who value the gender binary. While it is possible for anyone to stray from the gender binary in small or large ways, often transgender individuals seem to be perceived as a greater threat to binary views of gender than gender nonconforming cisgender people.
Kristin Broussard and Dr. Ruth Warner proposed that one reason for this might be that transgender individuals can be perceived as simultaneously transgressing the gender norms of BOTH binary genders. For example, a trans woman (i.e., someone assigned male at birth who now identifies as a woman) is transgressing male norms by identifying as a woman, but also may be seen as transgressing the norms of being a woman by not appearing feminine enough. Indeed, other research has found that transgender women are particularly at risk for prejudice and violence due to society’s general tendency to police femininity and to punish transgressions of misplaced femininity.
In their manuscript, Broussard and Warner attempted to identify how gender binarism, or the “belief that there are only two genders, corresponding with biological sex,” may be associated with transprejudice.
The researchers predicted that for individuals high in gender binarism, trans individuals would be perceived as particularly psychologically threatening because they stand in the face of something these participants strongly believe to be an essential, immutable, human trait: gender and, by extension, the connection between sex and gender.
The researchers focused on a notion referred to as “distinctiveness threat.” According to Social Identity Theory our social identities, or the groups to which we belong, help us to define our personal identities. To the extent that the boundaries around the groups that are important to our identities become blurred, we may experience distinctiveness threat. In short, the uniqueness of who we are as an individual comes under threat when the boundaries around group definitions that we use to define ourselves shift or become malleable.
For example, imagine that you are a police officer and that being a police officer is central to your identity. Then imagine that the category of a police officer was replaced with “Security Professional,” and that this new category would include police officers, security guards, and installers of home security systems. This experience would trigger high levels of distinctiveness threat in police officers whose identities were highly enmeshed with being a police officer.