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New IU research studies public perception of transgender people



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IU sociology professor Brian Powell was a researcher on a news study about the public perception of transgender people. "This is a fairly new topic for most people," Powell said. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

IU sociology professor Brian Powell had a question he said he thought no one in academia had tried to answer before. 

Powell worked with two assistant sociology professors, Long Doan from the University of Maryland and Natasha Quadlin from Ohio State University, on a survey to determine how the public perceives transgender people.

Powell, Doan and Quadlin claimed the survey is the first academic study of its kind. It was released on June 17.

Researchers found when given written descriptions of transgender people with different genders, ages and gender presentations, the majority of those surveyed perceived the transgender people's sexes as the same as their sexes assigned at birth rather than their gender identities. 

The study showed the level of gender conformity — or the amount a person does or does not perform the gender they are passing as — transgender people practice is the only factor included in the study that affects public perception of their sex. Neither age nor self-identification of gender affect the way a transgender person is identified by the majority of the public. 

Demographics of members of the public, such as age, race, location and religious and political affiliation, affect the way they perceive transgender people's sex, according to the study.

Powell said the researchers surveyed nearly 4,000 people above the age of 18 for the study. 

"This is a fairly new topic for most people," Powell said. "This is very different than what they grew up with, different than their ideas of sex."

IU Health Center Psychologist Brad Stepp works with transgender IU students. He said transgender people are an understudied population. 

However, he said the amount of research done on transgender people's lives has significantly increased since he started graduate school in 2004. 

"Keeping an open mind and allowing the people we interact with to share their own story is important," Stepp said. 

He said he believes the increased discussion of transgender issues is tied to the growing visibility of transgender people. Social media has allowed transgender people to connect with others and create a strong community, Stepp said.

Powell said he believes the pattern the study observed will change with time. According to the study, around 30% of the people surveyed said they knew a transgender person. Powell said those who know a transgender person are more likely to be open-minded about preferred bathroom usage and anti-discrimination laws. 

"Contact is a powerful force," Powell said. "It can be a powerful and liberalizing experience."

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