LAWRENCE — The success of the transgender rights movement is one of the most improbable underdog stories of American politics in the past 25 years, according to a new book co-authored by a University of Kansas political scientist.
"It is a tiny group with an estimated 0.5 percent of the population that is extremely marginalized and has few traditional resources in terms of members or financial resources," said Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science. "How could they so rapidly build a fairly successful movement and a movement that has achieved policy objectives in a short period of time?"
The University of Michigan Press recently published the book "The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights," by Haider-Markel; Jami Taylor, professor of political science and public administration at the University of Toledo; and Daniel Lewis, associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science & International Relations at Siena College.
The researchers found that a main driver of the movement's success appears to be the development of the term "transgender" entering the everyday lexicon, because before no umbrella term existed.
"One key part was really coming up with terminology that was accessible to people who didn't fit binary gender classifications," Haider-Markel said. "The creation of the term 'transgender' is really important in all of that because it is an inclusive term. It doesn't mean one single thing."
Even in early laws that adopted protections against discrimination, terms that refer to transgender identity are included.
"Once the term transgender takes hold, it becomes common in statutory law to use the term 'gender identity,'" Haider-Markel said. "From a legal standpoint, this opens up new litigation and policy implementation interpretation opportunities."
Recent legal successes of the movement included executive orders under the Obama administration and other local and state legislation, he said.
"In Title IX definition of sex, with interpretation to include in terms of gender identity, you can begin to make arguments about using bathroom facilities, for example, that are consistent with your identity and not worry about using terms like male and female," Haider-Markel said. "That is also where most of the pushback comes as well. But the success of the movement is evident because you can mobilize a backlash, which only happens after evident success."
Another challenge for the establishment of the transgender movement was not receiving acceptance of leaders of the broader gay rights movement in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, who often worried that adding gender identity to policy goals could sacrifice gains on legislation that supported rights based on sexual orientation, he said.
"The argument was, 'Let's get sexual orientation included in statutes, and then we'll come back for the T,' so the transgender rights leaders built their own parallel movement to the larger LGBT movement," Haider-Markel said. "They developed their own organizations and slowly integrated themselves with the LBG portion of the movement."
The success of the movement is evident in that it has gained statutory nondiscrimination protections at the state and local levels and hate crimes protections in a number of states, as well as inclusion in a federal law against hate crimes, legal victories in the courts and increasingly favorable policies in bureaucracies at all levels.
As well, transgender candidates for political office have become more common at the state and local levels, especially during the 2018 elections. On Tuesday, two transgender women, Democrats Lisa Bunker and Gerri Cannon, were the first openly transgender people elected to serve in New Hampshire's state legislature. In Massachusetts, voters also struck down an attempt to repeal a 2016 law that prohibits discrimination against transgender people in places of public accommodation, such as locker rooms, hospitals and restrooms.
Another key element of the movement's success has likely been more people becoming familiar with transgender people either by personally knowing someone or depictions in the media.
"Personal contact has a positive impact on attitudes, but so, too, do transgender characters in popular culture. People come to feel like they know characters depicted in the media, and it has a positive impact on their attitudes," Haider-Markel said. "And as attitudes become more positive, we see more transgender characters in popular media."
The book includes research contributions from several scholars, including Patrick Miller, KU assistant professor of political science.
Photo: Gender-neutral restroom sign via Flickr (Public domain).