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.
Nearly everyone in a Western society defines a good portion of their personal identity by their gender. Many names are considered to be appropriate for only one gender, and our name is perhaps the most identifying part of who we are as an individual. Similarly, our gender often dictates the clothing we wear, the style of haircut we get, and whether we grow or remove our facial hair! Thus, for many individuals, the notion of blurring the boundaries around gender can be experienced in the same way police officers might respond to a proposal to rename them as ‘security professionals,’ with nothing left to distinguish them from a mall cop or a summer student installing home security systems.
Thus, the researchers expected that individuals who highly value a binary system of gender, and who define what it means to be a man or woman very rigidly, would be more likely to experience distinctiveness threat when faced with gender nonconforming behavior from either cisgender or transgender individuals, but especially from transgender individuals. As Broussard put it, “Some people find transgender people threatening because they do not fit into one of two gender boxes, or, they do fit into one of the boxes, but not the one they were assigned to at birth.”
The researchers ran three studies. In each study participants read stories about hypothetical individuals who were either highly gender conforming or not gender nonconforming, and who were either transgender or cisgender. After reading the stories, participants were asked how much they thought they would like the person in the story, how much they accepted the person’s gender expression and the perceived distinctiveness threat that they experienced as a result of reading the story.
Across the three studies, they found that, in general, participants reported liking gender conforming and cisgender individuals more than transgender and gender nonconforming individuals (e.g., masculine women, feminine men). Participants also viewed transgender and gender nonconforming individuals as more threatening to the boundaries defining what it means to be a man or a woman (i.e., greater distinctiveness threat). However, it was gender-conforming transgender individuals (i.e., feminine transgender women, or masculine transgender men) who were viewed as being the mostthreatening towards gender boundaries. As Broussard put it, “it is likely that conforming transgender individuals (because they can ‘pass’ as their authentic gender) are especially threatening because they provide some evidence that there are more than two binary genders, or that [one’s] binary gender can be changed.”
In other words, if you strongly believe that there are only two sexes and that those two sexes always create two genders, and that it is not possible for someone to change from being one gender to another, being presented with a masculine trans man (someone who was identified female at birth) who visually and behaviorally is indistinguishable from a cisgender man, may be a very jarring experience that challenges binary beliefs about gender. Furthermore, gender conforming trans individuals may elicit distinctiveness threat because if you yourself are a man and hinge a great deal of your identity on being a man, what does this piece of your identity really mean if someone born female can ‘pass’ as being just “as much of a man” as you? Thus, the more an individual strongly believes in the gender binary, the more threatening transgender individuals (especially those who ‘pass’) are to that individual’s own personal identity as either a man or a woman.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that the connection between a transgender individual’s gender expression is not responsible for eliciting the prejudice of others. Rather, transprejudice stems from an internal process in which the person holding the prejudice experiences a threat to an aspect of their own identity, and thus lashes out against trans individuals as a means of trying to reaffirm the boundaries surrounding important aspects how they define their identity – in this case, their gender.