A simple 15-minute conversation with a stranger can have a lasting positive impact on how a person thinks about transgender issues like nondiscrimination protections.
That’s according to a groundbreaking new study published in this month’s Science. Researchers David Broockman (Stanford University) and Joshua Kalla (UC Berkeley) assessed the effects of door-to-door canvassing and found not only that a simple conversation with an experienced canvasser helped shift individuals’ thinking about trans issues, but that the shift lasted over time — even after they were exposed to opponents’ fearmongering bathroom ads.
This study shouldn’t have been groundbreaking. When Broockman and Kalla first started their research, they began by analyzing a similar study conducted by Michael LaCour at UCLA in 2014. LaCour claimed to have found a significant impact from canvassers discussing marriage equality with voters, especially if the canvassers were gay themselves, and Broockman and Kalla were simply planning to work with the Los Angeles LGBT Center to conduct a follow-up. But when they started exploring LaCour’s data, they found massive discrepancies that seemed to demonstrate the results were completely fabricated. LaCour’s study was eventually retracted.
Broockman explained to ThinkProgress what it was like to unpack that research:
It’s sort of as if somebody told you about a great dinner party they had and you saw pictures from it and then they gave you the recipe and then you look at it, you scanned it over, and said “That makes sense.” You go to Whole Foods or wherever and get the stuff and then you sit down to make it and, like an hour before everyone shows up, you’re like, “Wait a minute. This recipe makes no sense, and those pictures look doctored. What’s happening?”
Since they couldn’t actually follow the original study step-by-step, they had to start from scratch. They developed a brand new method for assessing the effects of the kinds of conversations canvassers can have with voters — and the results are very promising.
The focus of the canvassing conversations was to ask voters to put themselves into the shoes of transgender people. Rather than doing a lot of storytelling, Broockman explained that the canvassers were acting more like therapists, asking voters to share stories about their own lives and then finding ways to connect those experiences to the kinds of oppression trans people face. The more experienced the canvasser was at having that kind of conversation, the bigger the impact on the voter’s thinking.
In fact, it was that experience that mattered most. Unlike LaCour’s questionable results, Broockman and Kalla found that it didn’t significantly matter if the canvasser actually identified themselves as transgender. Indeed, all canvassers had a positive impact on voters’ perceptions of trans issues whether the canvasser was transgender or not.
“It seems like these kinds of personal interactions can lead people to change their minds in a way that lasts,” Broockman said, noting that the impact from a television ad, for example, can often fade within 24 hours. “That’s what I’m most excited about examining in future research is whether or not, indeed, on a broader set of issues and in a broader set of areas, this kind of high quality personal contact can have effects that last. That would really stand in contrast to the evanescence effects of most of what political practitioners do.”
When voters were shown anti-trans television ads, the effect of the conversation with the canvasser would still bounce back later. Surveys conducted with the study’s participants weeks after the canvassing interaction showed that the improved acceptance of trans people had stuck.
Where the effect of the canvassing really became apparent is when participants were reminded of the definition of “transgender.” For those in the placebo group, who received a canvassing discussing about recycling instead of about trans issues, defining the word tapped into their preexisting biases, but for those who’d received a conversation about trans issues, it reminded them of their support.
“If you’re asked about a nondiscrimination law, now you realize, ‘Oh! That’s what that means! Ah-hah!’ and so you’re able to map whatever attitudes you have about transgender people to that question,” Broockman reasoned.
Broockman suspects that the study is an indicator that other forms of advocacy campaigns don’t need to be closeted. Since both cisgender and transgender canvassers had a positive impact, “there doesn’t seem to be any downside” to being open about people’s identities. The campaign to defend the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, for example, noticeably avoided talking about or featuring transgender people in its ads. “If you really had to think about a conclusion, it would be that we don’t need to run closeted campaigns.”
The study is at the forefront of new research about the impact of transgender visibility and effective ways to message and educate people about transgender issues. It will no doubt influence future outreach campaigns and prompt multiple new studies as LGBT advocates attempt to resist the backlash against transgender people that is evident in new laws being passed in states like North Carolina and Mississippi.